While the tourists may have been shocked, the cult of Mussolini is "alive and well in Italy," as a German magazine noted a few years ago. Trinkets bearing the images of Il Duce, as Mussolini is known, are readily available to purchase — Mussolini's birthplace, a small town in central Italy called Predappio, has a popular gift shop — some restaurants and cafes across the country display pictures of the dictator, and a beach resort in Chioggia, another town near Venice, recently made headlines for its fascist regime theme.
Now the Italian government is trying to clamp down on that cult with a law that would ban the production and distribution of goods that celebrate Mussolini and his regime. Parliament is currently discussing the bill, which has the backing of the ruling Democratic Party. If approved, the law will also introduce harsher penalties for those engaging in neo-fascist propaganda online.
Predictably enough, Italy's conservative parties — who have an ambiguous but sometimes subtly sympathetic relationship with fascism — were outraged. "With this new law, my own existence would become illegal," said Alessandra Mussolini, the granddaughter of the dictator and a lawmaker with Silvio Berlusconi's center-right Forza Italia party, in a radio interview.
Matteo Salvini, the leader of the anti-immigration Northern League, tweeted that it is "ridiculous" to prosecute someone just because he "wants to buy a lighter with [a picture of] Mussolini." The anti-establishment Five Star Movement, which eschews the left-right distinction, also issued a statement saying the bill violates freedom of expression.
"Our Parliament believes that flooding the Italian people with laws and norms will suddenly make them better citizens, but evidence suggests otherwise," wrote blogger and author Massimo Mantellini. He noted that Italy has already two separate laws aimed at curbing fascist propaganda: One, from 1952, explicitly bans any propaganda activity aiming at the reconstruction of the Fascist Party; the second one, introduced in 1993, forbids the use of fascist imagery and slogans, but only when their purpose is to incite racial violence.
Both laws, Mantellini said, are rarely enforced. He argued that the popularity Mussolini still enjoys among Italians should be dealt with through better education. Progressive journalist Fabio Chiusi expressed a similar view: Rather than preventing far-right activists from posting their opinions on social media, he wrote in the magazine l'Espresso, authorities should find more effective way to inform the public.
But Emanuele Fiano, the senior Democratic Party lawmaker who drafted the bill, maintains that the country needs it to keep up with an explosion of neo-fascist propaganda online. "Earlier laws were drafted in a time when the Internet did not exist and people had to gather crowds or publish newspaper articles in order to spread propaganda," he told The Washington Post in a telephone interview. "Now it takes just five minutes to open a Facebook page spreading neo-Fascist and neo-Nazi propaganda."
Indeed, a public Facebook page that carries Mussolini's name enjoys more than 140,000 likes, and there are countless smaller groups dedicated to his cult. Fiano, who is Jewish, was also directly attacked by Massimo Corsaro, a lawmaker from the right-wing Fratelli d'Italia party, who posted an anti-Semitic slur on his own Facebook page on Tuesday.
"Some people say that my bill contradicts the principle of freedom of expression, but Italy has already introduced laws banning jihadi propaganda in an effort to stop the Islamic State," Fiano said. "I didn't see anyone complaining about them."