Benito Mussolini made an early name for himself as a journalist and political polemicist. An ardent anticleric, one of his most frequent targets was the Catholic Church, which he railed against in articles, essays and even a racy 1910 novel depicting a scandalous affair between a 17-century cardinal and his ill-fated mistress.

Mussolini’s radical roots ran deep

Mussolini was born in 1883, the son of a schoolteacher and blacksmith. While his mother was religious, his father expressed the strong anti-religious views that Mussolini would later trumpet. Mussolini was raised in a region of northern Italy that was a hotbed of left-wing dissent, and his father was a radical journalist in his free time, who read his son works like Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables.

A troubled youth with a history of violent incidents, Mussolini was also an avid reader and student. He worked briefly as a teacher but lost his job due to an affair and his constant fighting with the parents of his students. Just 19 years old, the restless young man moved to Switzerland, where he was reduced to sleeping in parks and once again running afoul of the law when he was arrested for the first (but certainly not the last) time.

He became a prolific writer

Following in his father’s footsteps, Mussolini turned to journalism. He began submitting pieces to a Swiss-based, Italian-language Socialist newspaper, The Workers’ Future. His articles proved popular, providing him with a regular source of income. He would also spend this time furthering his education, reading works by philosophers and political theorists, including Immanuel Kant, George Hegel and Friedrich Nietzsche.

Once again showing his father’s influence, Mussolini published an anti-clerical pamphlet, “Man and Divinity: God Does Not Exist,” in 1904, in which he mocked Christianity. His willingness to play the provocateur paid off; within a few years his influence would expand, and he was asked to write for Socialist papers as far afield as New York. His mother’s illness and death brought Mussolini back to Italy in 1904 but didn’t stop his writing. In additional to his political journalism, he dabbled in poetry, pamphlets short stories and essays, including one on Nietzsche’s work, which Mussolini claimed had a profound influence on him.

Benito Mussolini
Benito Mussolini writing
Photo: ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

Mussolini's only novel included many of his favorite themes.

After once again leaving Italy, Mussolini settled in Trent, then under control of the Austro-Hungarian empire, but with a large Italian ex-pat community. He worked as the secretary for a local trade union, but his incendiary writing for the Socialist paper Il Popolo got him deported back to Italy. But he continued his relationship with the paper, which began to publish regular, serialized installments of his latest work.

Mussolini would later claim that he had based the premise of The Cardinal’s Mistress on true events. Writing hastily at night, as he churned out pages for some much-needed cash, Mussolini depicts an illicit affair between a 17th century cardinal of Trent and his mistress, Claudia. The affair becomes public, and when the pope refuses to allow the cardinal to marry, a series of plot twists leave his niece (and only heir) dead, his mistress fatally poisoned after spurning the advances of a nefarious nobleman and the cardinal devastated and alone.

In between, Mussolini fits in a centuries-long history of Catholic religious figures behaving badly, featuring secret families, unsanctioned marriages and accusations of homosexuality. The book’s subject matter and frank language might not be too shocking to modern eyes, but it certainly is lurid, with scenes depicting self-flagellation, masturbation and even fantasies of rape. Released between January and May 1910, it proved to be briefly popular with Italian readers, especially as Mussolini’s political and journalistic star was on the rise.

By 1912, he became an executive of Italy’s Socialist party and editor of its largest Socialist newspaper. He tripled its circulation with his radical bromides against imperialism, capitalism and, of course, religion — publishing a biography of Jan Hus, the 15th century Czech religious dissenter-turned martyr who was burned at the stake by the Catholic Church. He would remain a writer for the rest of his life, with his works eventually comprising more than 54 volumes of written material.

'The Cardinal’s Mistress' received a savage review

The book wasn’t translated into English until 1928, almost two decades after it was written. By then, Mussolini had abandoned his earlier Socialist ideas for a bombastic, brawny and often violent form of Nationalism. After several years of rising tensions and threats, his Italian Fascists seized power in 1922, and Mussolini became prime minister, establishing totalitarian control of the country.

Despite evidence of Mussolini’s growing suppression of civil liberties, many in the West gave him their tacit approval, lauding his attempts at organizing and modernizing a country that had suffered economic and political unrest in the post-World War I years. In 1923, Time magazine put the dictator on their cover (as they would later do with Adolf Hitler in 1938, naming him Man of the Year).

But others saw through “Il Duce’s” swagger, including writer and critic Dorothy Parker. Mussolini’s novel had seemingly been forgotten, before being resurrected and translated by Hiram Motherwell in 1928, to capitalize on Mussolini’s fame. When Parker reviewed the book for the September 15, 1928 issue of The New Yorker, she turned her acid pen against her fellow “writer,” attacking its purple prose and scattershot plotting, claiming that despite locking herself in her apartment she could not even force herself to finish the book.

The novel would later be pulled from the shelves

By the time of its English-language publication, Mussolini himself had dismissed the book, reportedly saying it was nothing more than “a novel for seamstresses and scandal.” And while he hadn’t dismissed his anti-religious views, political expediency forced him into negotiations with the Catholic Church.

For decades, the Church had refused to recognize the legitimacy of the Italian government. Mussolini, meanwhile, knew that he had to appease Italy’s large Catholic majority. In 1929, the two sides agreed to a pact, known as the Lateran Treaty. Although Mussolini believed that the treaty would bring the Catholic Church under his control, in reality, it made the Church even more powerful. Among the concessions it negotiated was recognition of Vatican City as a sovereign nation under control of the Pope, mandatory religious instruction in Italian schools and the outlawing of divorce. And there was another unwritten understanding between the Church and the dictator — The Cardinal’s Mistress was to be removed from the shelves. The book soon faded into obscurity before being re-released in the 1950s, more than a decade after Mussolini’s death.