What do the leader of 20th-century Italian Fascism and the most notorious wit of the late Victorian era have in common? The lovely slipcased edition of Il Ritratto di Dorian Gray
that I have here at my desk, published in 1935 in Milan.
Sewn in at the front is a printed leaf bearing the ex-libris of Benito Mussolini. The bookplate is a sweet woodcut, complete with flowers, rolling hills, and a cozy cottage in the background.
Yes, this was the bookplate of Il Duce, the brutal conqueror of Abyssinia and ally of Hitler. Then again, so was this:
(Image courtesy of Confessions of a Bookplate Junkie.)
There's no way of knowing if Mussolini actually read The Picture of Dorian Gray, but I love the idea. If he did read it, the fantasy of a portrait aging and bearing the physical wear of a life of debauchery and evil deeds had to have appealed to him.
Oscar Wilde's novel first appeared in Lippincott's Monthly Magazine in 1890. In 1891 the publishers Ward, Lock, and Company printed the first trade edition. Dorian Gray continues to influence writers, musicians, and artists; here at the City of Books our Pearl Room art gallery is named for Basil Hallward, the character who painted Dorian's portrait.
Benito Mussolini was deposed in 1943, arrested, and held in captivity. The Germans rescued him in a daring raid. He was removed to Lombardy for the duration of the war, where he wrote his memoirs, My Rise and Fall, and plotted the executions of fascist leaders who had turned on him; the leaders killed included Mussolini's son-in-law.
Even if Mussolini subscribed to the saying "Live by the Sword, Die by the Sword," he couldn't have foreseen what would happen after his death. Taken by Communist partisans, he and his mistress were shot, and their bodies were strung upside down from meat hooks and spit upon by the populace. His corpse was buried, exhumed, stolen by neo-Fascists, and finally recovered after months of being AWOL.
Oscar Wilde and Benito Mussolini couldn't be more different. For example, Wilde was a gifted scholar who won the Berkeley Gold Medal in classics at Trinity College, while Mussolini was kicked out of school at the tender age of 11 after stabbing another student in the hand. Yet here they are, linked through this translated edition of Wilde's novel and the printed leaf bearing Mussolini's name.
If you are interested in seeing ? or buying ? this little slice of history, the book will soon be added to the inventory in our Rare Book Room (and subsequently on our website). As for myself, I'm on the prowl for Mussolini's copy of Pride and Prejudice. That's one book I wouldn't be able to resist.