Rabindranath Tagore, the ardent defender of public liberty once made a grievous mistake of accepting the invitation of the fascist dictator Mussolini. This incident gave rise to an international backlash which caused repercussions, especially amongst the left-wing press in Europe. In the end, Tagore had to diffuse the situation by writing a long letter to Charles Andrews explaining in detail the background of his invitation. The letter was published in The Manchester Guardian on 5 August 1926. A re-edited version of the letter, in translation, was subsequently published in several papers in the European Press. However, it took some time to clear the misunderstandings surrounding Tagore’s visit to Mussolini’s Italy. This piece briefly describes the story of an imperfect encounter between two personalities whose ideologies and beliefs were worlds apart.
Tagore visited Italy twice in his life time, once in 1925 and again a year later in 1926, though he passed through the country several times before and during his visits to England.
It was on his second visit to Italy, that he met Mussolini twice.
Political backdrop of Italy in the 1920s
Before October 1922, the year when Mussolini came into power, there was political turmoil in Italy and Luigi Facta, the Prime Minister, failed to deal with Mussolini’s insurgency. The economy was unstable and there was an alarming growth of public disorder especially with the rise of crime and murder. The parliamentary system failed to tackle the crisis. Although the Socialists were one of the most dominating political forces in the country, the intelligentsia failed to accept them as a ruling party. With such chaos in place, Mussolini was able to come into power. After his famous march in Rome in October 1922, King Vittorio Emmanule, with no other alternatives, asked Mussolini and his National Fascist Party to form the Government.
Mussolini quickly took charge of the situation, using his private army the Blackshirts, who ruthlessly controlled all who opposed Mussolini. Freedom of press was subsequently abolished and overnight all papers were forced to convert into fascist press.
In 1924, Mussolini and his militia used violence, propaganda, and vote-rigging to win his first election with an absolute majority. Some of the socialist leaders such as Amendola and Matteotti challenged the election. As a result, they were eventually assassinated by the Blackshirts. A mass persecution took place and many intellectuals namely Profs Salvadori and Salvemini; conductor Toscanini; Angelica Balabanoff, an expert of European socialism; and many others fled from the country and took refuge elsewhere in Europe.
The appalling treatment of these socialists, especially the assassination of Matteotti and Amendola had a detrimental effect on Mussolini’s image in the rest of the world. Adverse criticism found its way in some socialists papers published in France. One thing Mussolini knew from the very beginning was that to enhance his prestige at home his international image must be upheld and without a strong foreign policy and the right kind of propaganda that image could not be achieved. He often invited the foreign press, dignitaries and cultural delegations to publicise and demonstrate the positive successes of his regime and divert the international attention away from the Matteotti incident.
Against this political backdrop Tagore came to Italy in 1925 to begin his first tour on his voyage back from Argentina.
First Italian tour, 1925
Tagore’s official invitation for his first visit came from the non-governmental academic body, The Philological Society of Milan. In addition, he was supposed to visit Florence and Turin as the original tour was scheduled for 25 days. But he had to cut short his tour as he became ill. The Italian medical team did not take any chances advising Tagore to return to India. His proposed tour in Florence and Turin were cancelled. Eventually he went to Brindisi, via a short detour in Venice, to embark on the liner heading back to India.
Tagore’s ill health caused some embarrassment for his tour organisers. Tagore himself also felt embarrassed as he was overwhelmed by the warm reception given to him by the people of Milan and Venice. Keen to return and visit more of Italy, he expressed his intention of coming back when his health would allow him to travel. He conveyed this message in a poem which was translated into Italian and published in the Italian press before he left.
In Milan Tagore met Prof. Formichi, a distinguished Sanskrit scholar and an Indologist of Rome University. Formichi was also the lead person that organised the Poet’s tour with The Philological Society and later on, was the interpreter throughout Tagore’s visit. Before leaving Milan, Tagore invited Formichi to join Visvabharati as a visiting professor at his university’s expense and requested that he find enough funds to set up an exchange programme for an Italian scholar that, in addition, would bring Italian books on literature and art. Prof. Formichi accepted the invitation.
Tagore did not tour Rome so was unable to meet Mussolini in 1925, although Mussolini himself was aware of Tagore’s presence in Milan.
Second Italian tour, 1926
Prof. Formichi received the official appointment letter from Visvabharati in July 1925. He was both delighted and apprehensive as he was unable to source funding for an Italian scholar for the proposed exchange programme. Furthermore, he was unable to purchase the Italian books he promised Tagore. The situation was a little embarrassing for Formichi as he was aware that other European visiting professors who preceded him donated substantial amounts of resources to Tagore’s University. Being desperate for funds and finding no other alternatives he ultimately wrote a letter directly to Mussolini explaining everything and requesting support.
Until that point, Mussolini had no issues or policies towards India. His only reference to India was found in an article published in Il Popolo d’Italia where he predicted the Mophla rebellion would be the end of British rule in India. In fact, during the mid-twenties, the situation in India became favourable with fascist propagandists; for a few years the above article by Mussolini was the only commentary on India available in Italy.1
However, when Formichi’s letter arrived at his desk for his personal attention, immediately a sinister plan was triggered in his mind. He became seriously interested in Tagore. Perhaps he assumed that any positive remarks and praise by Tagore, a symbol of peace and human liberty with towering international fame and respect (at least during that period), for his fascist regime would be highly valued by the outside world.
Suddenly Tagore became a big catch to Mussolini, and there were other advantages. Tagore did not know the language and was not much aware of Italian politics. So when Formichi’s application came to his desk for his personal attention, Mussolini generously approved the application. Mussolini was confident his approval would act as bait and Tagore was bound to be hooked.
Prof. Formichi’s worries were over. He joined Visvabharati in November 1925 and brought with him the entire library of Italian classics, and the service of Prof. Tucci, another distinguished scholar of Indology for a year all paid for by the Italian government.
Tagore was overwhelmed at Mussolini’s gesture and immediately cabled Mussolini expressing his gratitude. He wrote:
“…I assure you that such expression of sympathy, coming as it does from the representative of the Italian people, will open a channel of communication of cultural relations between your country and ours, which has every possibility to produce and event of great historical relevance.”2
Tagore wanted to show his gratitude personally by going to Rome and asking Prof. Formichi to arrange his trip. A second visit was due in any case as Tagore wanted to keep the promise he made on his first visit. Prof. Formichi informed the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the poet’s intention of visiting Italy again. Now, Mussolini’s plan was off the ground. The Government extended their hospitality directly.
Tagore arrived in Rome on 30 May 1926. The following day, accompanying Prof. Formichi, he went to meet Mussolini at his office in Palazzo Chigi. For the very first time the Poet and the Dictator came face to face.
In his opening conversation Mussolini said, “I am one of those many Italians that have read all your books; of course those that have been translated in our language.”
Tagore was visibly moved by this statement. He thanked Mussolini for the generous gift and for the services of Prof. Tucci at Visvabharati. Mussolini then enquired how long the poet intended to stay in Rome.
Learning it was the Poet’s intention to visit Florence the following week, Mussolini insisted him to stay at least a fortnight in Rome, to take complete rest and to enjoy some sight-seeing. Tagore expressed his gratitude further and during their extended dialogue mentioned that he had not yet decided the subject of his public lecture. Mussolini immediately insisted: “speak on art, speak on art.”
In this context, Mussolini’s biographer wrote, “He liked to stress the great importance of art and he himself, inevitably, was claimed to be a seminal influence upon contemporary artists; but in private he was ready to confess that he did not understand pictures and inwardly he resented that Italy had been held back from political greatness by the illusory and corrupting pursuit of aesthetic values.”3
The conversation was extremely cordial and lasted for half an hour. Prof. Formichi was translating Mussolini’s words into English but not Tagore’s words into Italian as Mussolini could understand English when spoken slowly.
At the end the Prime Minister said, “Just let me know what you would like to do best and I shall be more than happy to arrange it for you.”
On his way back to the hotel when Formichi asked Tagore about his first impressions of Mussolini, Tagore replied, “Without any doubt he is a great personality. There is such a massive vigour in that head that it reminds one of Michael Angelo’s chisel. Moreover, there is a simplicity in the man which makes it hard to believe that he is really the cruel tyrant many indulge in depicting.”4 Parts of this statement was reported in the press.
Again Mussolini’s biographer wrote : “…His personal magnetism worked best with those who saw him rarely; nevertheless he could always impress a visitor when he tried and all the fascist leaders remembered how they had at times fallen under a real spell…”5 and Tagore was no exception.
The above is only a small summary of the first meeting between the two, which was also highlighted in some of the Italian Press. When a reporter of a well circulated fascist paper asked the poet to write a few words about the new Italy, he wrote, “Let me dream that from the fire-bath the immortal soul of Italy will come out clothed in quenchless light.” This statement was also quoted in several of the daily papers.
During the next two weeks (1-13 June 1926) Tagore visited most of Rome’s landmarks, met with the King, had lunch with the British Ambassador, was received by the Governor of Rome at the Coliseum, and gave several interviews to newspaper reporters though some of his quotes were wrongly interpreted in the press and as Tagore did not know the language, he found no discrepancies in what was written. He was heartily received at the University of Rome, gave several lectures of which the most important one was that presented at the Union of Intellectuals The Meaning of Art, attended by Mussolini himself.
In the afternoon of his meeting with the British Ambassador Tagore told Formichi, “As long as Mussolini lives, Italy can be said to be safe. Now I know what I shall answer when, after crossing the Italian border, I hear people speak ill of your country.”6 It was an irony that Tagore had to speak ill of Italy after crossing the border!
Tagore met Mussolini for the second (and last) time before his departure from Rome on 13 June. This time the meeting was longer and heartier. As usual, Tagore mentioned his ideas of an East-West fellowship. He said, “Italy possesses a great personality, and therefore she as a nation most suited to promote a rapprochement between both the Asian and the European civilisations.” Mussolini agreed. Tagore also added, “Your Excellency, you are the most slandered man in the world.” Mussolini, with an innocent face replied, “I know, but what can I do?”
Then the Poet expressed his intention to meet the great Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce. Before Mussolini could respond, Prof. Formichi objected in a louder tone “Impossible! Impossible!” Mussolini, cunning as ever, immediately stopped him and asked to arrange the meeting. Next, Mussolini showed Tagore the blueprint of his plan to build an International City in Rome. Tagore was again highly impressed and finally he requested of the Duce a signed photograph.
The meeting was over, though at present there is still no record that this meeting was mentioned in the Italian press at that time.
The next day Tagore left Rome for Florence followed by his visit to Turin. On 22 June before leaving the border of Italy the poet sent a cable to Mussolini, “I take leave with hearty thanks to Your Excellency, and to the Italian people represented by Your Excellency, for your generous hospitality and kind sentiments towards me.”7
With that note, Tagore and his party left Italy by train for Switzerland never to return Italy again!
Post Italian Tour
In Switzerland Tagore spent a few days in the company of Romain Rolland at Villeneuve. There he had a long conversation with Rolland, who was very critical of the fascist regime in Italy.8 Rolland tried to give Tagore a more truthful picture of the growing repression, violence and atrocities that took place in the fascist state and eventually condemned his tour.
There was no doubt that Tagore himself felt a kind of uneasiness, especially during those latter stages of his Italian tour. But he was so thrilled by his reception and intrigued by Mussolini, that he was unwilling to believe he had made any mistake in coming to Italy. Rolland also made Tagore aware of some of the oblique comments in the European press on his Italian visit. He tried to bring Tagore out of his ambivalence, stressing the fact that freedom of expression had been stopped in Italy.
Listening to Rolland, Tagore found himself with a great dilemma and eventually he agreed (though under pressure) to publish a write-up in the form of an interview, deploring some of the facts he did not like in the tour. Rolland brought his friend Duhamel from Paris, with a view to publicising the interview in the French press.
But that arrangement also went wrong. In his article Tagore could not dismiss from his mind the magnificent reception he received from his Italian host. A frustrated Rolland and Duhamel finally requested that Tagore not say or write anything before he heard the truth from those now living in exile.
A meeting was arranged with Tagore and Prof. Salvadori in Zurich and Modigliani in Vienna. In Zurich, Prof. Salvadori could not meet the Poet because of his illness but his wife took his place.
In her opening conversation, Signora Salvadori asked, “You, who are so good, why did you come to Italy, now the land of violence and persecution?”
Tagore explained the background of his tour. At one stage he said, “I had no opportunities to study the genesis or the activities of the fascist movement and I did not express any opinion about it. In fact in most of my interviews I was careful to explain that I was not competent to say anything either for or against fascism, not having studied it…About Mussolini himself I must, however, say that he did interest me as an artist…Mussolini struck me as a masterful personality… The people with whom I came into contact in Italy were almost unanimous in assuring me that Mussolini had saved Italy from anarchy and utter ruin. ”
Signora Salvadori emphasised that, “… It is not true. This is the opinion of people who are in favour of Fascism … People who hold contrary views were not allowed to see you … It is not true that Mussolini had saved Italy from financial ruin. The financial position of Italy was better before Mussolini came into power. Look at the Lira, it was 70 to the pound, and it is now 130 … Foreigners do not know, and merely repeat conventional tales. But what makes us unhappy is that you have unintentionally helped to support Fascism. We know it is unintentional, for you are too good to do so.”9
Signora Salvadori related to the poet only those facts which she had personally witnessed. The whole conversation lasted for an hour and was later published in The Manchester Guardian in October 1926. Indeed, he heard similar stories when he met with Mr Modigliani, the attorney of the Matteoti Trial, and Angelia Balabanoff in Vienna.
Tagore was clearly perturbed by what he had heard and developed the same mental agitation and distress as he had during the Amritsar massacre which took place in India seven years beforehand.
From Vienna he wrote a letter to his friend Charles Andrews in India, explaining in details the background of his Italian tour, how he was trapped by the interviewers, that he never praised fascism at any stage of his tour but admitted he praised Mussolini as an artist. The letter was elaborate but courteous, eventually published in The Manchester Guardian on 5 August 1926.10
Prof. Formichi was taken aback to see the Poet’s sudden change of attitude towards Italy: he also sent a counter article in the same paper three weeks later stating his side of the story.
Rolland did not like the softer tone of Tagore’s letter. However, he selected the salient points from that letter, re-edited and translated it and distributed it amongst the European press, thus drawing a close to Tagore’s relationship with Mussolini’s Italy.
It was true that Tagore was affected by the strange and captivating illusion of Mussolini, but that illusion lasted until Mussolini invaded Abyssinia and other Mediterranean states. Tagore never once praised fascism at any point during his Italian tour. As Mussolini and fascism are more or less used synonymously, he was often misquoted in the Italian media.
The Italian people had a glimmer of Tagore’s letter to Andrews and his interview two weeks after. The Bologna paper Assalto reported (28 August):
“That Tagore, who came to Italy twice and inflicted us on his very heavy poetic lucubration, is an old actor who is worthy of our highest contempt…This guru is kept by various governments. He is paid so much at each lecture… this viscid, insinuating individual, who is as honeyed as his words and poems, came to Italy as he was invited, paid and helped by the government. He exalted Italy, glorified fascism, and sang the praises of Mussolini… As soon as he crossed the border, this old man with an unsound soul, who impressed the public with his long black tunic and his white beard, talked behind the back of Italy, Fascism and its great leader, who is endlessly greater than him… He approximately behaved like prostitutes who always swear they are in love with their latest customer. Today we claim we do not like Tagore as a poet anymore because he is emasculated and without backbone. He disgusts us as a man because he is false, dishonest and shameless.”11
And with this, Mussolini’s plan to involve Tagore in his political propaganda came to a crashing end.
In 1930 when Tagore came to New York after visiting Russia, he met Prof. Formichi again. Formichi was then the visiting professor of the Italian Chair at Barclay. During the course of the conversation, Tagore expressed his intention to resolve any misunderstandings he had with Mussolini. Formichi suggested the Poet write a letter to Mussolini directly explaining his account. The Poet made a draft and instead of sending it to Mussolini directly, sent it to his son in Santiniketan for his approval. He wrote (21 November 1930):
It often comes to my memory how we were startled by the magnanimous token of your sympathy reaching us through my very dear friend Prof. Formichi. The precious gift, the library of Italian literature, is a treasure to us highly prized by our institution and for which we are deeply grateful to Your Excellency.
I am also personally indebted to you for the lavish generosity you showed to me in your hospitality when I was your guest in Italy and I earnestly hope that the misunderstanding which was unfortunately caused a barrier between me and the great people you represent, the people for whom I have genuine love, will not remain permanent, and that this expression of my gratitude to you and your nation will be accepted. The politics of a country is its own; its culture belongs to all humanity. My mission is to acknowledge all that has eternal value in the self-expression of any country.
Your Excellency has nobly offered to our institution on behalf of Italy the opportunity of a festival of spirit which will remain inexhaustible and ever claim our homage of a cordial admiration.
I am, Your Excellency,
Whether that letter was ever sent to Mussolini is still unknown. However, according to Mario Prayer, the letter was sent but it was not clear if it ever reached the hand of the Duce.13
1. Mario Prayer, Italian Fascists Regime and Nationalist India, 1921-45,
International Studies, vol 28, pp 249-271, (1991).
2. Cited from Carlo Formichi, India e Indiani, Alps, Milan (1929), translated by
Mario Prayer, Rabindra-Viksha, Vol 40, p 21, Rabindrabhavan, Santiniketan
3. Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini, Granada publishing, p 155 (1983).
4. Cited from Carlo Formichi, India e Indiani, Alps, Milan (1929), translated by
Mario Prayer, Rabindra-Viksha, Vol 40, p 19, Rabindrabhavan, Santiniketan
5. Denis Mack Smith, Mussolini, Granada publishing, p 127-8, (1983).
6. Cited from Carlo Formichi, India e Indiani, Alps, Milan (1929), translated by
Mario Prayer, Rabindra-Viksha, Vol 40, p 26, Rabindrabhavan, Santiniketan
7. Cited from Carlo Formichi, India e Indiani, Alps, Milan (1929), translated by
Mario Prayer, Rabindra-Viksha, Vol 40, p 34, Rabindrabhavan, Santiniketan
8. For details of Rolland-Tagore dialogue see Sisir Kumar Das (ed.), The English
Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Vol. 3, pp 890-99, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi
9. For details of Rolland-Salvadori dialogue see Sisir Kumar Das(ed.), The English
Writings of Rabindranath Tagore, Vol. 3, pp 899-903, Sahitya Akademi, New Delhi
10. For the entire letter see, Kalyan Kundu et.al (ed,), Imagining Tagore-
Rabindranath and the British Press (1912-1941), pp 418-421, Sahitya Samsad,
11. Asalto, 28 august, 1926, [cited from Gaetano Salvemini, Tagore e Mussolini;
“Esperienze e Studi Socialisti in onore di U.G.Mondolfo”, Florence: La nuova
Italia, Pages: 191-206, 1957]
12. Mussolini File, Rabindra-Bhavan archive. Santiniketan , India.
13. Mario Prayer : Italian Fascist Regime and Nationalist India; 1921-45, International
Studies Vol 3, p 253. New Delhi (1991)
[Materials of the above article are taken from the author’s Bengali publication “Itali safare Rabindranath o Mussolini prasanga” (a comprehensive account of Tagore’s tour in Italy) published in January 2009 from Punascha, Kolkata (India). The research was sponsored by The Tagore Centre UK. For further information please contact <email@example.com>]
Published in Parabaas May 7, 2009.