Rome is famous the world over as the final resting place of emperors, popes, martyrs and kings from Augustus to Saint Peter, but few know about Mussolini’s pet chicken.
The hen is buried in Italy’s oldest pet cemetery, which this year marks 100 years of laying to rest much-missed cats, dogs and other four-legged companions in an atypical graveyard in the southwest of the capital.
Over the decades, more than 1,000 pets have been buried in Casa Rosa, where brightly painted wooden shrines adorned with stuffed animals and figurines share the space with classic headstones under the shade of pines and palms.
Many boast pedigree owners, including La Dolce Vita director Federico Fellini, Oscar-winning actress Anna Magnani and Brigitte Bardot, whose poodle died while the French sex symbol was shooting a movie in Rome.
But the most famous was late Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
“It all really started with the hen of Mussolini,” Luigi Molon, the cemetery’s owner, 73, told AFP.
“Not having the land to bury her… he brought her here, where Mussolini’s kids would come with flowers to remember the happy times they spent together.”
The children’s playmate came to the Mussolini family as a chick after being won at a fair, and was buried in the plot of land owned by Molon’s father, the trusted veterinarian for the Great Danes of “Il Duce”.
– Empty house –
No signs of the hen remain and Molon laughs when asked where exactly she is buried – he doesn’t know.
But the interment of the near-famous fowl inspired others, and before long the elder Molon’s backyard became a pet cemetery, since licensed by Rome’s public authorities.
Today, the vast majority of pets at Casa Rosa have more modest lineage, from Carlitos the Shih Tzu to Lord Byron the Irish setter, but they are no less loved.
“The house is empty and sad without you,” reads the inscription on the granite tombstone of Ringo, a German Shepherd who died in 1979.
“I love you,” reads that of Ruga the turtle, who died in 2017.
Many of the graves include photos of the deceased: Billo the black and white spaniel is shown in the arms of his adoring family, while a puppy photo of Jack the shepherd is placed next to one showing him as a grey-in-the-muzzle hound.
Horses, rabbits, monkeys, a hamster, turtles, ducks, pigeons, parrots, a sparrow and a lioness named Greta are also under the earth here.
Some of the bereaved visit their former companions every other day or week, Molon said.
The ritual of visiting and bringing flowers or stuffed animals “is nothing more than the continuation of brushing him or taking him for a walk”, he said, his yippy white terrier Jenny at his side.
Molon would not say how much it costs for a five-year plot, although reports suggest around 150 euros ($146) a year. Many renew their plot, but many don’t, opening the space for others to follow.
“And it’s not a bad thing, because if you don’t renew, it means the pain has passed,” said Molon, whose son will take over the private cemetery one day.
A tail-less ginger cat – who Molon rescued but has yet to name – snoozes on fake green grass atop an unmarked grave adorned with dog figurines.
Nearby rests Michelangelo, the yellow Labrador, Mike Tyson the Scotty and Cindy the rabbit, two stuffed bunny toys placed over her grave.
“A sweet little pest who ran everywhere, you left us too soon,” reads the inscription for Giotto the tabby, who died in 2020 at age two.
“Now you can run and climb among the clouds.”