Death and the Dolce Vita
DEATH AND THE DOLCE VITA: THE DARK SIDE OF ROME IN THE 1950s
A book extract by Professor Stephen Gundle, Department of Film and Television Studies
The prologue to Professor Stephen Gundle's most recent book introduces a compelling murder case in 1950s Rome. The death of Wilma Montesi - an attractive 21-year-old, whose body was found washed up on a remote beach some 40 kilometers from her home - was at first dismissed as either suicide or an accident, but did her fate point to a darker side of Roman life - the flip-side of the glamorous dolce vita?
Rome, 9 April 1953. It’s a blustery spring afternoon on the Via Tagliamento, a busy residential road to the east of the city. Bicycles trundle by, while Vespas and Lambrettas occasionally zip up and down the street, manoeuvring around the slower cars and trucks. It’s cold, and a light drizzle has left the pavement wet. People are wearing their winter coats to visit the local shops, which have just opened for the afternoon trade. Pedestrians hurry along, eager to get out of the wind. Halfway along the road, opposite no. 76, an imposing apartment building with a decorative façade, a group of workmen lean on their shovels, smoking and eyeing up the passing talent. It’s an ordinary day in a romantic, slightly shabby city, where church bells still drown the loudspeakers of the advertising vans, and the glitz and the gutter are never too far apart.
At around five fifteen p.m., a young woman leaves her family’s modest apartment upstairs in no. 76. She’s twenty-one, dark-haired and pretty, with a full face and dimpled cheeks. She’s wearing a distinctive yellow and green checked coat, with one button at the collar, a yellow skirt with green spots, and a pair of black antelope shoes with large buckles. On her arm she carries a bucket handbag. She makes her way down the stairwell, walks across the block’s courtyard and passes through the entrance arch. The concierge sees the young woman pass her window, but after she goes out onto the street, the only people who notice her are the idle workmen, who whistle appreciatively.
When she fails to return for dinner that evening, her family panic. After making some urgent phone calls to relatives, and searching the immediate neighbourhood, they report her disappearance to the police.
Thirty-six hours later, a body is found on a beach some twenty kilometres south of Ostia at Torvaianica. Discovered early in the morning by a young man named Francesco Bettini, the woman is lying face down, head towards the sea. She is dressed in a yellow coat, still fastened at the neck, but turned inside out over her head. The body is fully clothed, apart from shoes, skirt, stockings and suspender belt. Shocked, Bettini hurries off to inform the police, telling everyone he meets along the way about his discovery. Villagers come to stare and are pushed away by local officials belonging to one of Italy’s six national police forces, the Financial Police, who arrive to inspect the body. No one can give her a name.
Two officers from the nearby Carabinieri station come to take charge of the scene. At eleven a.m. a doctor arrives from nearby Pratica di Mare to certify the death. He pushes through the crowd, and notes the well-preserved condition of the corpse. Following a brief examination he concludes that death had occurred approximately eighteen hours previously – that is, some time on 10 April. Drowning is the probable cause. The body lies on the beach for the rest of the day. Covered with a simple sheet it forms a grim focal point on that drab, windswept stretch of coastline. Finally, at eight thirty p.m. the procurator’s office announces that no magistrate will visit the site, and authorises removal of the body to the Institute of Forensic Medicine in Rome.
Wilma Montesi is identified at the mortuary on the morning of 12 April by her father and her fiancé. Seeing what look like bruises on the body, the younger man cries out in anguish, ‘They have killed her, my poor Wilma.’
For the following five years, the mystery of Wilma Montesi’s death will preoccupy the people of Rome, and the affair will blow up into a scandal that touches almost every corner of public life. For now, her distraught family must try to work out why she came to lie dead on that lonely beach, miles from Rome.
The idea that Wilma had committed suicide was quickly dismissed as improbable – by her family at least. She had had her keys with her, and no reason to take her own life. With their honour at stake, and fearful perhaps that tongues might begin to wag, the girl’s parents and sister seized on an alternative scenario: Wilma had drowned accidentally while bathing her feet at Ostia, a nearby seaside resort. Shortly before her disappearance, she had complained to her sister of irritation caused by the rubbing of a new pair of shoes and had heard that sea water might ease it. Instead of seeking the advice of the local pharmacist, whose shop was just a few yards from the entrance to the apartment block, she had resolved to go to the coast. However, Ostia was a good half-hour by train from Rome, and to reach the station Wilma would have had to cross the city by tram. Would she really have left home after five o’clock on a blowy spring afternoon to undertake such a journey alone? Wilma’s fiancé, Angelo Giuliani, voiced some reservations, but he was the only one.
Numerous stabbings, cases of strangulation and bodies dragged from lakes had hit the newspapers. Women, who had won the vote for the first time in 1946, were the usual victims.
Regardless of its implausibility, the family decided that this was what must have happened and they would not be dissuaded. The local police, having learned that the girl had left behind her identity card and valuables, were inclined towards suicide. But when the investigation was taken over by Rome’s mobile police squad, the officers went along with the family’s hypothesis. They, too, found accidental death the most plausible verdict. Barely five days after the body was found – an incredibly short time in terms of police procedure – the case of the girl on the beach was closed.
In normal circumstances, the matter would have rested there. Wilma Montesi was hardly the first young woman to meet an odd death in Rome. In the years after the war, numerous stabbings, cases of strangulation and bodies dragged from lakes had hit the newspapers. Women, who had won the vote for the first time in 1946, were the usual victims. More often than not they were vulnerable servants or prostitutes, from the Lazio countryside or the south, who had moved to Rome and met the wrong man.
Wilma was different. She was neither a servant nor alone in the big city. She lived at home with her family, who claimed that she scarcely went out. She passed her time mainly in the company of her mother and older sister. She liked listening to the songs on the radio and reading magazines; she loved the movies and tried to copy the stars in the way she dressed. Neighbours and acquaintances said that her appearance was always tidy and smart.
In some respects the Montesis were typical of the old-fashioned lower middle-class. They attended church infrequently, but regularly, and the parents were highly protective of their girls, not allowing them to work outside the home, or to have boyfriends. Keen to make good marriages for her daughters, but lacking the requisite social connections, Maria Montesi decided to accompany them to a reputable dance hall. The Sala Pichetti had been a middle-class meeting ground since the 1930s, and even in the 1950s preserved its strait-laced status. It was a dance school during the day, and its director still expected girls to be chaperoned during weekend sessions. Here, Maria hoped that Wilma and Wanda might attract appropriate suitors. So it was, one Sunday in September 1952, that she escorted them, dressed in their best frocks, to the dance. And it was on this first visit that Wilma met her future fiancé.
Almost nothing was ever said of Wilma’s tastes or her personality. She was, and has remained, a blank canvas, an anonymous Anygirl, whose fate almost seemed a consequence of her ingenuousness. One of the few things that is known is that she did not derive much pleasure from her relationship with her fiancé. It seemed a stilted, wooden affair, in which ritualised meetings alternated with formal declarations of affection. Although Wilma received various gifts from Angelo, including a bracelet and necklace, there seems to have been little warmth between them. They saw each two or three times a week, never alone, and if they went out they were chaperoned by Wanda or Sergio, Wilma’s younger brother.
At first Wilma was taken with Giuliani and his ceremonial promises. He had proposed soon after their first meeting, after receiving assurances about her reputation. But he was a jealous man with a violent streak, and after a punch-up with a colleague who had made unseemly comments about his intended bride, he was transferred to the southern city of Potenza. After this, the couple’s meetings were reduced to one a month.
In a notebook Wilma drafted the letters she wrote to Giuliani every day following his transfer. After her death, it was impounded and its contents were later revealed to journalists. Her letters were brief and simple, written in conventional style, with obvious contributions from her mother and sister. The only jarring note came in the plaintive missives she wrote after what would turn out to be their last meeting, four weeks before her death. After lunch on Sunday, 3 March 1953, Angelo and Wilma had gone – alone for the first time – to the nearby public gardens of the elegant Villa Borghese. Seizing his opportunity, Angelo had attempted to grope Wilma and to kiss her on the lips, only to be pushed away with the excuse that he would mess up her lipstick. Offended, Giuliani left in an angry mood and did not make his usual trip to Rome the following month. The next time he saw Wilma, she was laid out on a slab at the morgue.
According to her family’s account, Wilma’s last day had been entirely tranquil. She had had lunch at home and had done some sewing for her trousseau. Sometimes the girls and their mother went to the cinema in the afternoon. There were three picture houses within walking distance of their apartment so there was always a choice of films. On this occasion, Wilma had declined to join the other women to see The Golden Coach, a Jean Renoir film starring Anna Magnani, about a commedia dell’arte theatrical troupe performing in eighteenth-century Peru. She told the others that she would stay in and maybe later she would go for a walk on her own.
Did Wilma already have a plan for the afternoon? Did she make or receive a telephone call that led her to leave the house? By all accounts, she was as composed as usual when she passed the concierge’s window and, a few minutes later, the workmen on the road outside. She did not look like a girl rushing off to an assignation.
Some of those who knew Wilma were of the opinion that something important might have happened in her life during the weeks before her disappearance. Perhaps something that affected her view of her fiancé. One of her old schoolmates observed that she had recently become more confident and sophisticated. She smoked, too, a touch of daring out of step with the naïve image her family projected of her. And there were other indicators that Wilma was not simply a quiet, obedient girl. A few days before her death, she had had an argument on the stairs with two girls who lived in the block. In the course of a loud exchange, she had used the most vulgar expressions and had received a slap in the face from her mother. What was going on in Wilma’s life that had caused these changes? What was the truth behind the picture of innocence? Could Wilma have become mixed up in something sinister?
Rome in the 1950s is remembered for the glamour of the dolce vita – the high life. It was home to numerous film stars, foreign business people, playboys, artists, writers and journalists. With its vibrant night life and unique joie de vivre, it was an ancient city with a very modern allure. But alongside the glamour there existed a much darker side. Rome had witnessed the collapse of Mussolini’s Fascist regime, endured two foreign occupations and the destruction of much of its social fabric. It had grown rapidly too. The city was a magnet, drawing people, especially the young, from all of Italy’s regions. It was a place where dreams could come true, but also, inevitably, where aspirations died, young hopes were crushed, and individuals – especially young women – were exploited and discarded.
Perhaps this was why the Montesi affair, as it came to be known, resonated so deeply. It was a Roman story that offered a grand narrative of a city that was struggling to find a new sense of itself. It raised issues that affected everyone: the place of the family, the freedom enjoyed by young women, and the role of honour. Not to mention sex, drugs and corruption in high places. The press eagerly followed its twists and turns, and used the fascination the case exerted on the public to increase circulation. It also became a matter of political concern, since Italy’s powerful Communist Party used it as a stick to beat the establishment and the government. It even had an international resonance, with the United States becoming increasingly afraid that it could cause a deep political crisis that might imperil Italy’s fragile anchorage to the West. The lonely death of Wilma Montesi, an ordinary girl, had given rise to an extraordinary scandal.
Stephen Gundle’s research interests are in 19th and 20th-century cultural history. Prior to writing Death and the Dolce Vita (Canongate, July 2011), he published two books on the origins and development of the idea of glamour in Europe and the United States (The Glamour System, published in 2006, and Glamour: A History, published in 2008). His primary expertise is in Italian cultural history, with special emphasis on cinema and television. This year he completed work as Principal Investigator on a large-scale AHRC project entitled ‘The Cult of the Duce: Mussolini and the Italians, 1918-2005’.