Italy's Most Scandalous Love Affair

Italy's Most Scandalous Love Affair

circa 1940: Edda Ciano, daughter of Benito Mussolini, and her children. In 1930 she married Count Galeazzo Ciano, who later became Italian Minister of Foreign Affairs.

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Why you should care

Because this politically incorrect affair is boosting tourism.

Edda Ciano loved to wear a bikini top with a scarf wrapped around her waist when she visited the beach on Lipari, one of the spellbinding Aeolian islands off Sicily. She and her lover, Leonida Bongiorno, often lounged on the jet-black volcanic shore close to the main village. After laying in the sun, they’d both go for a swim, and when they returned to shore the handsome man held a towel in front of his 35-year-old lover as she changed.

Passers-by may have presumed they were a couple on holiday, but this was no vacation. Ciano, the daughter of Benito Mussolini, had been exiled to the island for two years following the death of her father in 1945. She’d been married, earlier, to Galeazzo Ciano, the foreign minister of fascist Italy, who was executed in 1944. Scandalously, Edda’s next love reached way over the aisle: While on Lipari, she had an affair with Bongiorno, the local communist chief. This secret relationship had the nation’s most famous fascist woman canoodling with a man who’d fought against her father’s regime and the Nazis.

She was a ‘married widow,’ which to traditional Italians meant she was still married.

Italians prefer to dismiss anything linked to Il Duce or fascism. But in 2009, journalist and writer Marcello Sorgi, who often visits Lipari, discovered the lovers’ private letters and photos and unearthed their love story. His investigation culminated in the book Edda Ciano and the Communist. “It was fascinating, discovering another, different Edda from the one handed down by history,” Sorgi tells OZY, noting how Ciano landed on Lipari as a prisoner and suffered as a result of her poor living conditions there.

When Ciano met Bongiorno and fell in love, she began to recover her strength. Ciano had always been a strong woman who defied expectations — she wore trousers, smoked and drank like a man — and Sorgi’s book poignantly depicts a funny, highly cultured woman who spoke many languages. Little was known about the unconventional couple, according to Sorgi, because it was “one of the biggest cases of historical censorship.” While many islanders knew about the relationship, they were encouraged to keep quiet. Ciano was a “married widow,” which to traditional Italians meant she was still married. She was also “the fascist Italian woman,” says Sorgi, noting how it was taboo at the time to write about Italy’s dark past.

Like most star-crossed lovers, Ciano and Bongiorno didn’t end up together. When Italy’s new state granted amnesty to all political prisoners 10 months after her arrival, Ciano left to rejoin her children in the north. The former lovers stayed in touch via mail for a while, but Bongiorno eventually married a local island girl. Yet Ciano’s legacy is still felt on Lipari today. The relationship has been a moneymaker for the island, especially after Italy’s state television turned Sorgi’s book into a movie. Exploiting the love affair has boosted so-called cine-tourism to Lipari, with visitors touring the movie’s locations.

One of the Bongiorno family homes was turned into the picturesque Hotel Oriente, which includes a museum of the island’s history. The hotel, now run by Bongiorno’s granddaughter, attracts guests looking to uncover this long-hidden chapter of Italy’s past. Nearby is Ciano’s “Petite Malmaison,” her nickname for the cozy apartment that Bongiorno put at her disposal to increase her comfort on the island.

Mayor Marco Giorgianni is happy the love story has helped revive tourism. All of Lipari’s hotels, he tells OZY, organize tours of Ciano’s former prison, her favorite beach and other places linked to the affair. And the island shows no signs of easing up. “We’ve just allocated some 1.4 million euros to restyle that beach where Edda and Leonida used to hang out,” Giorgianni says.

Locals still have memories and tales of Ciano’s time on the island. Mimmo Belletti, 70, says he was christened by Mussolini’s daughter. “Apparently Edda was real fond of me,” he says, noting how she liked his curly blond hair. She would often comment on what a “lovely boy” he was, Belletti says, and even offered to be his godmother.

Ciano’s former prison isle later became one of her favorite holiday spots, and Il Duce’s daughter returned to Lipari every summer until the mid-’70s — lured, no doubt, by the memories of her stay and the melancholy of her lost love.

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