A Roman villa’s wine cellar, which was converted into an air raid shelter for Benito Mussolini and the Italian dictator’s family, is opening its anti-gas, double steel doors to tourists.
The shelter was quickly constructed in 1940, after the outbreak of World War II, in what had once been the wine cellar of a noble family who lived there before Mussolini took up residence during his Fascist rule.
Visitors at a preview Saturday saw the iron-rung ladder used for emergency exits and a rusting contraption to purify air in case of a gas attack. A label on the apparatus was dated November 1940 in Roman numerals, in keeping with Mussolini’s style of evoking the ancient Roman empire’s glory days as inspiration for his own rule.
The tours, which will run on weekends starting Oct. 31, will also take visitors to see a separate underground bunker that was later built for Mussolini directly under the villa.
Mussolini had the bunker made by encapsulating the 19th-century villa’s underground kitchen area in reinforced concrete. Before that, the Mussolini family would have had to dash across the villa’s sprawling lawn and gardens to reach the wine-cellar shelter in a separate structure if air raid sirens sounded.
Work began in 1942 to expand and fortify the bunker. Archaeologist Giuseppe Granata said Mussolini had lamented in writing that the updated bunker was running behind schedule and over cost. It is not known if the dictator ever used the bunker. By the time Allied bombings hit Rome, the dictator had been deposed and, under Nazi protection, was leading a puppet state in northern Italy. In 1945, partisans captured and executed him.
Today, Villa Torlonia is a pine-and-palm-studded park where Romans jog, stroll, play soccer or dine at an outdoor restaurant.