Anyone reading the brochure of the 5 star luxury hotel, Mandarin Oriental in Blevio, will remain entirely ignorant of its illustrious origins in occupying the site of the home of Giuditta Pasta – the most famous mezzo-soprano throughout the first half of the nineteenth century. The hotel was until recently known as the Casta Diva, named after the aria in Norma composed specifically for the voice of Giuditta by Vincenzo Bellini. In 1906 the current villa was built on the site of Giuditta Pasta’s home and renamed Villa Roccabruna.
It was owned by the Wild family, Turin industrialists of Swiss origin. Enrico Wild and his wife, Magda Brard, a renowned concert pianist and daughter of an anarcho-syndicalist French senator, lived there during the fascist period until she was arrested at the end of the war on suspicion of collaborating with the nazifascists. Magda Brard is said to have been one of Benito Mussolini’s mistresses to whom she bore a daughter, Vanna, born in 1932, but that is all another story…
…..Since It is also most unlikely that current hotel guests are reminded of the tragedy that took place on the night of 3rd May 1946 when a famous resident of the Villa Roccabruna drowned in the lake while attempting to cross back home from Moltrasio. That person was Gina Ruberti, better known as Gina Mussolini – the dictator’s daughter-in-law.
A Fated Nation and a Fated Family
The death of Gina came at the culmination of a series of tragedies affecting the personal lives of the dictator’s family during and just after the end of the disastrous fascist regime. These tragedies started with the death of Gina’s husband, Bruno – the third born and possibly the favourite child of Benito and Rachele Mussolini.
He died in an air accident whilst piloting a test flight in Pisa on 7th August 1941. This was followed by the execution for treason of Count Galeazzo Ciano on 11th January 1944. Ciano was the husband of Mussolini’s elder daughter, Edda. She had implored her father to show some mercy to her husband, the father of three of Mussolini’s grandchildren. Edda never forgave her father and remained estranged from him for the rest of his life. Then of course there came the infamous end of Mussolini himself executed in the company of his mistress Claretta Petacci in Mezzegra on Lake Como on 28th April 1945 on the orders of the CLN (Comitato di Liberazione Nazionale) with the implicit approval of the British allies if not the Americans.
Mussolini throughout his life had been responsible for the deaths of thousands to millions of his fellow citizens or to those innocent refugees who had previously sought shelter in Italy from Nazi atrocity. He reduced his country to a state of abject poverty and devastation and created a state of civil strife that still lingers to some extent to this day. So he is hardly deserving of an iota of sympathy. However Gina’s story is one of a tragic life that came to a tragic end on Lake Como.
Bruno and Gina
Gina Ruberti and Bruno Mussolini were married on the 29th October 1938 in the Chiesa San Giuseppe in Rome. Bruno was 20 years old and his bride was two years older. Theirs was a full fascist wedding with Gina given away by Mussolini himself. The couple went on to honeymoon in Naples. King Vittorio Emanuele wrote the following note congratulating the dictator on the marriage of his son:
‘Dear President, the queen and I wish to tell you that we vividly share in the joy of your family and we send our best wishes to your valorous son and his gracious wife.’
Bruno was deemed ‘valorous’ because he exemplified the iconoclastic adventurous dynamism of youth so often projected in the propaganda of the time as encapsulating the spirit of the young fascist state. Aged just 13 he came third in the Circuito di Littoria motorcycle race travelling at up to 130 km per hour. He started flying lessons when 17 and was soon flying sorties in the Ethiopian War. He seemed the very personification of the futurist spirit and its political offshoot – fascism.
In the summer of 1937 he headed a squadron of fighter planes based in Palma di Majorca as part of Mussolini’s assistance to Franco in the Spanish Civil War. In 1937 he wanted to emulate the transatlantic crossing of his hero Italo Balbo and on 24th January 1938, he left Rome’s Guidonia airport for Dakar in Senegal from where he crossed over to Brazil to a hero’s welcome in Rio de Janeiro.
On his return he was promoted to captain. One year later he married Gina whom he had known since he was 15 years old. However, just less than three years later and seventeen months after the birth of their daughter Marina, Bruno died aged 23 on 7th August 1941 piloting a test flight in Pisa. His widow and her father-in-law were devastated. Bruno’s early death saved his reputation from the ignominy brought about by the later years of the fascist regime but he did fully participate in the shameful invasion of Ethiopia and in the barbarity of the Spanish Civil War.
Gina had always been well received within the Mussolini family and her father-in-law was genuinely fond of both her and his granddaughter, Marina. It was natural that Gina and her child would become members of the Mussolini household. They all moved to the Villa Feltrinelli in Gargnano in 1943 once Hitler had reinstated his fascist partner as head of the so-called RSI (Repubblica Socialista Italiana) – a puppet state governing the Nazi occupied north of Italy.
Life in Villa Feltrinelli was not great. Firstly there was the poisonous atmosphere created by the neighbouring presence of Claretta Petacci, Mussolini’s most recent mistress. Rachele Mussolini became so distraught by her rival’s close proximity that she even attempted suicide by drinking bleach.
Then, towards the end of 1943 and following the execution of Count Ciano, the household was rocked by the rupture in the relationship between Mussolini and his elder daughter, Edda. She had escaped over into Switzerland on the 9th January 1944. Here she was able to join her three children who had already transferred there but later she went to stay within the safe confines of a convent from where she wrote the following letter to Gina:
Dear Gina, thank you for your letter. I’m sure that you have been close to me in all these horrendous days that I have been and am still going through. You are lively but generous. As you know, I am shut up in a convent and the absolute lack of freedom weighs heavily on me, also because I don’t know to whom or to what I should attribute this rigour. Maybe one day it will pass and I will go back to living among people without feeling like the mangy sheep that needs to be removed from the herd. The judgement of men has always left me indifferent, but injustice burns within me. But I’m a good fighter and, although the desire to crouch in a corner and let go is sometimes irresistible, I still want to go on and stand and hold my head high. I don’t envy your family life: I know the environment too well not to envy your two rooms and a silly servant. Who knows if we will meet again one day; I hope. However things turn out, my friendship and affection for you will remain. I don’t have a fleeting memory. Hugs to you and Marina. Edda
Later Gina was joined by her mother and father who moved from Rome to come and live on Lake Garda as the allied troops advanced up the country. They were accustomed to join the Mussolini family most evenings in the Villa Feltrinelli. But, as the war progressed life there became ever more uncomfortable with regular sorties of allied fighter planes coming over to strafe the shores of the lake.
At the point in which everyone could see the war was lost, Mussolini decided to move his entourage back to Milan and to put some distance between himself and the Nazis by organising a final redoubt in the Valtellina. He left Villa Feltrinelli for the last time on 18th April 1945 to take up residence in the Milanese Prefectura. His family including Gina and her parents duly followed on later.
As the allies broke through the Gothic Line and the defeat of the Axis forces was imminent, the centre of diplomatic and political activity shifted to Milan and Como. Mussolini was entertaining the idea of a final stand in the Valtellina, trying in these last days of the war to distance himself from the Nazis. His route north into the Alto Adige (Sudtirol) was discounted primarily because the Nazis had already claimed this as their territory since their invasion in September 1943. For Mussolini, the Valtellina offered a possible last stand if he could summon up enough supporters. Meanwhile neutral Switzerland was the only place where potential peace negotiations could be conducted with the allies or in contact with the Papal Nuncio in Berne. And the easiest route into Switzerland or to the Valtellina was via Como.
Mussolini arrived at the Como Prefecture in Via Volta in the late evening of 25th having cut short his negotiations with Cardinal Schuster in Milan. He was accompanied by Gina Ruberti whom he recommended to seek accommodation at the house of his former mistress, Magda Brard, in the Villa Roccabruna in nearby Blevio. She, her child Marina and the nanny moved in there on the very day that Magda Brard was taken into custody by the CLN and imprisoned in Como’s San Donnino prison accused of collaborating with the Nazifascists. Her parents, Guido and Teresa Ruberti, were already accustomed to staying on Lake Como at the Villa dei Giussani in Torno along with Teresa’s brothers Vitangelo and Umberto Tangorra. Umberto’s daughter, Maria Antonietta, was already living in the Villa degli Ambrosoli in Lemna above Faggeto Lario. Mussolini’s eldest son, Vittorio, briefly took up residence in the Villa Stecchini at No. 13 Via Ferrari before seeking refuge and hiding in the infirmary of the Collegio Gallio. He would later call on the assistance of the church to use the ratline to Argentina via Genoa established by ex-Nazis and their sympathisers. Once the CLN had completely taken over from the fascist regime in the city, Gina’s parents were saved from partisan revenge by the local CLN commander Colonel Sardagna who placed them in the requisitioned home of Alfredo Degasperi in Via Fiume.
Gina settled down to a sad existence within the gloomy and dull atmosphere of Villa Roccabruna. The eccentric proprietor, Enrico Wild, continued holding his seances seeking communication with the spirit world and exhibiting odd behaviour like sleeping while standing up. Gina lived under a false name for some time and occupied herself by travelling most days by bicycle to and from the home of her parents in Como. She also spent hours in confessional conversation with the local priest, Don Giuseppe Conti.
It was just over a year after the execution of her father-in-law when tragedy was to strike. On 3rd May 1946 Gina as usual travelled by bicycle to spend the day with her parents in Como. She returned in the evening to Villa Roccabruna to receive a visit from a friend, the Marchesa Isa De Marchi. The Marchesa was accompanied by three British soldiers stationed in Milan namely her fiance, an English captain called Tony, a Major Parker and their driver. At around 9.00pm they all took the Villa’s motorboat for a brief trip over to the Ristorante Imperialino on the other side of the lake in Moltrasio. A sharp wind was developing and so the party spent little at the restaurant to set out on their return trip to Blevio.
However they had only got half way over the lake when the boat started taking on water through a gash in the bow which may have been caused as they had docked in Moltrasio. It was at about 11.00pm when within sight of the shore, the boat’s engine died due to the intake of water. The Marchesa and Major Parker swam out to raise the alarm and get help. Gina was the only one in the party who could not swim so Tony and the driver swam alongside to support her as they too tried to reach the shore. It appears that all three of them were swallowed up by a strong eddy and died on the spot. Isa De Marchi was the sole survivor since Major Parker died three days later in hospital from ingesting water mixed with the boat’s engine fuel. Gina’s body was recovered by fishermen that same night but the bodies of the two British soldiers were never found.
According to Maria Antonietta Tangorra – Gina’s cousin – news of Gina’s death was brought to her the following day by Pier Bellini delle Stelle, who as the partisan commander ‘Pedro’ had been the one who took Benito Mussolini into custody in Dongo in the previous year. Colonel Sardagna broke the news to the devastated parents of Gina in Como.
Lake Como had brought nothing but ill fortune on the Ruberti family and so it must have been some relief for them to return to Rome the following November with their orphaned grandchild Marina and her nanny. If Mussolini could have had any inkling of the tragic consequences to both his country and his family of the military alliance he entered into with Germany back in 1939, he might well have listened more carefully to the misgivings of his son-in-law, Count Ciano, and not set his country and his family on such a tragic trajectory.
Local historian Roberto Festorazzi’s book ‘Bruno e Gina Mussolini’ (published by Sperling and Kupfer, Milano 2007) was invaluable in researching this article.
A documentary entitled ‘Bruno e Gina – Amore, Guerra e Morte’ was made in 2014 but I have only found a trailer for it available on You Tube.
There are a number of articles in Como Companion covering the last few days of the Nazifascist regime including:
25th April Liberation Day – Como’s Role in the Insurrection
‘James Bond’ Returns to Lake Como