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Dallying with Il Duce
December 2017 / January 2018

Moving between the family estate, Florence and Rome, meeting and listening to a wide variety of people, Iris Origo presents us with a fascinating record of shifts in mood and opinion. No doubt it is partial, as all such diaries must be, and of course her position was a privileged one, but she talks to peasants as well as priests and princes, to her hairdresser and to people met by chance on trains, to foreign visitors — two young Polish refugees and anti-Nazi Bavarian Catholic cousins. She offers a remarkably wide spectrum of sentiment and opinion, and I find her diary as persuasively reliable as it is unquestionably fascinating.

There are lighter moments, too long to quote here. One is her godfather’s account of a visit he makes to the King in his fishing-lodge in Piedmont; it’s sad and sympathetic, oddly charming. Another is her report of a strange, even uncanny, encounter in the Vatican.

When, finally, just before Iris Origo gives birth to a daughter (having written nothing about her pregnancy), the family and their tenants and dependents crowd round the radio to hear Mussolini announce that Italy has declared war. Antonio says, “Salute al re! Salute al Duce!”. “The men salute automatically, without enthusiasm. Then they shuffle away in silence.” Antonio, having done his public duty, says, “Ci siamo” — that’s it then — “I’m going out to look at the wheat.” Il faut cultiver notre jardin.

Months previously a simple riddle circulated: “Mussolini? Hitler? Chamberlain? Daladier? Chi Vincera?” The third letter of each word gives the answer.

This diary is so good that I wish Iris Origo had continued to keep it going throughout the war. If you love Italy, read it — and then return to War in Val d’Orcia.
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