In his essay “The Duce’s Portraits,” Italo Calvino tells us that he “spent the first 20 years of his life with Mussolini’s face always in view, in the sense that his portrait was hung in every classroom as well as in every public building or office.” The invasion of public spaces by dictators’ likenesses in all kinds of media was nothing new in Mussolini’s time but, with mechanical reproduction and the photographic medium in full bloom, a leader’s face could imprint itself on memory as it had never done before. With a friendly if humorous wink at the semiological analyses of his contemporary Umberto Eco, Calvino in his article revisits his quasi-photographic childhood memories of Mussolini. And, what Calvino remembers most acutely is that from the start of his leadership, Mussolini struck an odd note amid his contemporaries by having neither a mustache nor a beard.
Now, the mustaches and beards that Calvino remembered are not what we today associate with current men’s facial fashion, be it an unshaved shadow of a beard or a small tuft of hair above or below the mouth. No, unlike the archetypal elder statesman figure in Calvino’s mind, what Mussolini did not have was an abundance of erotically placed silky hair adorning his lips. For Calvino, this clean-shaven look was a sign of modernity, a sign needing interpretation by historians. “I don’t think that there are historians who emphasize the facial hair dimension in various epochs,” he wrote in Hermit in Paris (2004), “and yet those are certainly messages that have a meaning, especially in periods of transition.”
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