PREDAPPIO, Italy — It began quietly, without warning. One morning, three young skinheads on a secret mission entered the crypt, donned black capes and took turns standing at grim attention by their hero's tomb.
The next day, another stone-faced trio took up the 11-hour watch, and before many people noticed, the stealth vigil had become a daily routine. Today, nearly a year later, the ritual is an established fact: Benito Mussolini, the long-disgraced fascist dictator, has a posthumous honor guard.
Mayor Ivo Marcelli, a former Communist, is outraged. Having such an infamous native son is awkward enough, he complains, but the honor guard has this little town under a kind of paramilitary siege. Over the mayor's protests, the silent men in capes keep coming from all over Italy and now number about 400.
Mussolini is enjoying a revival, and its strength is evident far beyond his grave. Fifty-seven years after he was shot dead by Italian partisans while trying to flee the country and strung upside-down in a piazza in Milan, Italy's shame about its vanquished World War II ruler is yielding to the curiosity and fascination of generations born since.
As a political force in Italy, fascism may be as dead as Mussolini himself. But with mainstream nationalists holding power in Rome and gaining strength across Europe, historians are reassessing his legacy, and restraints on the country's long-hidden fascist subculture are loosening.
Despite a law that bans public glorification of fascism, shops and flea markets all over Italy sell everything from T-shirts to bottles of wine bearing the boulder-jawed image of Il Duce. For those who love kitsch, there's a Snoopy dog with a menacing glare on his face and a black truncheon in his paw.
Exhibits of fascist-era art and schoolbooks draw crowds. Newsstands offer a 15-video set of Mussolini's speeches, and a televised interview with his daughter drew 3.5 million viewers last fall--a huge audience here for such programming.
The dictator's homes are being restored and opened to the paying public. A dedicated traveler can now trace Mussolini's life from the farmhouse where he was born here in 1883; to Villa Torlonia, his Rome residence when he ruled Italy from 1922 to 1943; to Villa Feltrinelli, now a five-star hotel on picturesque Lake Garda, where he led a tiny rump republic under German army protection until his capture and execution in 1945.
And if Guido Costa, the mayor of Tremestieri Etneo, gets his way, nostalgia tourists will be able to add his Sicilian town to the itinerary and stroll down the proposed "Via Benito Mussolini--Statesman." Italy's resurgent interest in its most notorious 20th century figure defies the politically correct portrayal of his one-party regime as an unmitigated disaster. That Cold War perspective was shaped by the Communists who led the anti-fascist partisan struggle and the Socialists and Christian Democrats who dominated the country's postwar politics.
In that view, fascism was an unbroken plague of mass marches, Pharaonic public works, press censorship, secret police, imperial conquest and anti-Semitic laws, capped by a disastrous alliance with Nazi Germany that provoked an Allied invasion and left Italy in ruins. Mussolini's party was banned after the war, and a 1952 law prohibited any public call for its revival.
Over the last decade, since corruption scandals brought down Italy's center-left establishment and opened the way for right-wing parties to vie for power, a more complex view of fascism, emphasizing its benefits as well as its flaws, has gained ground.
Volumes by Renzo De Felice and other Italian historians have emphasized that Mussolini was beloved during most of his heyday for modernizing the country, defending family values, suppressing the Mafia and making the trains run on time. That popularity broke down only with the devastation of the war, they point out.
The election of a center-right government under media magnate Silvio Berlusconi last May has further eroded the anti-fascist taboos.
But it has also kept Mussolini's emboldened but tiny band of loyalists out on the fringe.
Gianfranco Fini, whose National Alliance is the reformed heir to the Fascist Party, has embraced the political mainstream to become Berlusconi's deputy prime minister. Seeking respectability as Italy's delegate to a European Union panel, Fini in January retracted his 1994 characterization of Mussolini as the century's greatest statesman.
Many Italians welcome all these changes as evidence that fascist political power is irretrievable and that a more balanced look at its historical and cultural imprint is now possible.
"Paradoxically, as fascism recedes over the historical horizon, it is becoming more of a folkloric phenomenon," said Franco Pavoncello, a political science professor at Rome's John Cabot University. "Before, it was unacceptable, hidden. Now you see people trying to establish a connection with the past."