Inside Story

Italy’s Black Lives Matter moment

Clashes over a statue in Milan reveal complicated truths about the country’s postwar history

James Panichi 30 June 2020 2054 words

Indro Montanelli’s statue in Milan after being smeared with red paint by protesters earlier this month. Claudio Furlan/LaPresse/Sipa USA

It’s safe to assume that the rape of a twelve-year-old girl would horrify the average Italian. Yet the controversy over the future of a statue dedicated to legendary liberal journalist and writer Indro Montanelli, who died in 2001, suggests that even a crime like this can be reframed by politics, history and deep-seated racism.

As the slow-moving wave of protests and statue-toppling sparked by the Black Lives Matter movement makes its way to Italy, it’s hardly surprising that this monument to a man who talked openly about the crimes he committed as a twenty-six-year-old army officer serving in Ethiopia is sparking bitter divisions. The tougher question is why Italians allowed it to be erected in the first place.

If Montanelli still polarises Italy almost twenty years after his death, it’s because postwar Italian history remains so divisive. A few months before I moved there as a nine-year-old with my family in the dark winter of 1978, prime minister Aldo Moro had been executed by his communist kidnappers, and Italian democracy was hanging by a thread. The iron curtain was still dividing Europe and the internal pressure from far-left and far-right paramilitary groups was constant and oppressive. Those “Years of Lead” were dominated by bombings, kidnappings and assassinations; democratic institutions, yet to heal after twenty years of fascist dictatorship and the effects of a de facto civil war, were teetering.

My Italian father, an old-school centre-right liberal, brought Montanelli into our lives before we could even speak the language. In the early seventies, the famed journalist had left Corriere della Sera, the Milan-based daily that had been his spiritual home since 1938, interrupted by six months spent in fascist jails under a death sentence that was never carried out. The Corriere’s drift to the left in the 1970s had convinced him to establish his own newspaper, Il Giornale Nuovo (later simply Il Giornale — literally, “The Newspaper”). It was this daily, and the columns that Montanelli wrote for it, that my father would quote from when talking about politics. Il Giornale was always around; it’s what we read over breakfast.

I’m not sure if my father knew much about Montanelli’s time in Africa — my guess is that he didn’t. What I do know is that our home became a shrine to Montanelli’s writing, with the history books co-written by the journalist, the ambitious “Storia d’Italia,” arriving in weekly instalments as part of the subscription deals that were popular at the time.

In a country where language is often used to conceal or obfuscate, Montanelli’s prose was clear and concise, with an often-humorous turn of phrase. He was a great communicator — arguably, the best of his generation. And the liberal, secular values he expounded seemed refreshingly radical in a society where political discourse was dominated by the communists, the corrupt and corrupting Christian Democrats, and a loony right that no respectable Italian would touch with a barge pole.

Montanelli had paid a price for his convictions. In 1977 he had been shot by the Red Brigades, a group of communist terrorists, as he left a Milan hotel. Under the punishment, referred to as gambizzazione, bullets are fired into a person’s legs with the intention of maiming them. Bizarrely, the newspaper where he had spent most of his career, Corriere della Sera, reported the shooting but refused to identify Montanelli as the victim. He recovered and returned to work.

He remained editor and columnist of Il Giornale right up until the man who had become its publisher, Silvio Berlusconi, decided to enter politics in 1994 —something Montanelli identified as an unacceptable conflict of interest. He left the newspaper he had founded and established La Voce, which only lasted a year. By then, my family had long returned to Australia, but in 1995 I was back in Italy visiting relatives and bought the last-ever edition of La Voce, which is now at the bottom of a box in my Melbourne garage. Il Giornale continued, fulfilling its destiny as the lapdog of Berlusconi, as Montanelli had predicted.

The Montanelli statue is made of bronze and can be found in a park close to Milan’s Porta Venezia — in fact, the park itself is now named after the Tuscan-born journalist. The statue was cast from a famous photo, taken in 1940, showing Montanelli sitting on a stack of books against a wall with a portable typewriter on his lap, hitting the keys. The photo marked the journalist’s return from Finland, where he had been covering the early days of the war. Although he’s wearing a hat, the statue leaves his bald head uncovered.

Even before the statue was erected, the photo had come to represent the fearlessness of Italian journalism — a notion foreign observers find hard to reconcile with the demonstrably servile approach to power among the country’s journalists. The significance of that photo meant that the statue came to embody something more than Montanelli’s liberalism and independence of thought — it became a monument to journalism. It was erected in 2006 in a spot not far from where the Red Brigades had attempted to put him in a wheelchair for the rest of his life.

Montanelli’s marriage — or so he defined it — to an Ethiopian girl when he was a twenty-six-year-old officer was well known when the statue was commissioned. There’s a 1969 television interview on YouTube in which he talks openly about how he had “bought” the girl after paying the father 500 lire — a sum that also got him a horse and a rifle. He’s asked for more information by the interviewer who, far from being horrified, mentions how the girl was rumoured to have been the most beautiful in what was then the Italian colony of Abyssinia.

Later, though, Montanelli is taken to task by a member of the studio audience. The journalist appears baffled by the question. “There was no violence because girls in Abyssinia get married at the age of twelve,” he says. The audience member doesn’t let him off the hook. “If you did it in Europe, you would be raping a child.” He concedes that would be the case.

Writing in 2000, a year before his death, Montanelli provided more insight into what he insisted had been a legitimate marriage — though there was never any possibility of the girl returning with him to Italy when his tour of duty had ended. The details are almost too disturbing to recount — making their recounting all the more important. She had been infibulated as a baby, making it almost impossible for Montanelli to complete the rape; it was only with “the brutal intervention of her mother,” as he later wrote, that he was able to proceed.

The fact that Montanelli was able to write about what he had done without fearing social ostracism — let alone prosecution — says something about the racism that underpins Italian society. How would this type of violence be broadly socially acceptable without the premise that the girl, whom Montanelli called Destà, was racially inferior? Montanelli simply told the country that Africans were different and that this is the age at which they married, and the country broadly accepted the explanation.

There’s plenty still to be written about the cultural manifestations of Italian racism and how the country’s ill-fated colonial experiences may have played a part in it. My humble observation is that because Italy abruptly lost its African colonies in 1943, with the collapse of the fascist regime, the country never had to deal with colonial independence movements and immigration from former colonies.

In fact, the country I moved to in 1978 was as monocultural as they get— the only non-European faces we saw were the Moroccans who walked along the beaches selling carpets to tourists. There hadn’t been a black Italian leader since Florence had been led in the 1530s by Alessandro de’ Medici, the illegitimate son of an African slave. No one I knew had met a black person, and any knowledge people had of Italian colonialism came from the fading memories of parents and grandparents who had served in the Italian colonies of Ethiopia, Libya and Somalia — memories echoed and further distorted by popular culture.

Even today, the words of the fascist wartime song “Faccetta Nera” would be familiar to most Italians. “Little black-faced girl/beautiful Abyssinian/wait and hope that the time is nearing/when we will be close to you/we will give you another law and another king.” Subsequent verses get even more granular: “Little black-faced girl/little Abyssinian/we will take you to Rome, freed… We will march with you/we will parade before the Duce and the king.” The notion of African conquest and the beauty of young black girls is a legacy of fascism that even an anti-fascist like Montanelli wasn’t immune to — he often remarked on Destà’s looks and had a photo of her in his study.

Add to that the clunky, cringe-making racism of Italy’s postwar cultural boom. At my Catholic summer scout camp we would often sing the 1960s hit “I Watussi,” apparently inspired by the height of the Tutsi tribes of Rwanda and Burundi. “We are the Tutsi/The very tall negroes/with each three steps/we move six metres/the shortest of us/is two metres tall.” This song and the dance that accompanies it is still used as the final encore in dance halls today.

This is all objectionable, of course, but it’s what you get when you haven’t had to grapple with multiculturalism and haven’t had to ponder whether people of African descent are entitled to a place in your society. Unlike France, say, Italy hasn’t needed to consider the possibility of an African Italian claiming his or her right to a respectful relationship with fellow citizens; Italian society hasn’t had to accommodate diversity at any level.

Montanelli’s abuse of a young girl was indeed rooted in racism; but the decision to allow a statue to be erected at the centre of a modern and increasingly multicultural city like Milan has, I suspect, more to do with the lazy racist culture that even the most progressive of Italians allow to slosh around. I can vouch for the fact that not a single member of my scout group was racist — in fact, you’d struggle to find Italians more committed to social justice. Yet around the campfire we’d sing the Tutsi song because — well, why not? It was just a song, right?

The controversy of the Montanelli statue immediately led to the same political divisions I had witnessed when we would fight it out in meetings during my high school days. The centre right and what remains of the liberals — including former classmates of mine — immediately circled the wagons, saying that Montanelli was neither a racist nor a child abuser; the post-communists argued the opposite, saying that the statue had to go. When I mentioned the issue to my ninety-year-old father, now in a Melbourne nursing home, he immediately knew what to think: the communists weren’t even going to let Montanelli rest in his grave.

That’s not to say my father’s take is entirely wrong. I’m in no doubt that there are communists who are still pursuing Montanelli for his strong liberal advocacy at the height of the cold war. What’s more, my father’s belief that the left would do well to examine the legacies of its own scoundrels is also fair. But that’s not the point. Montanelli was the centre right’s scoundrel; he was the liberals’ paedophile. Say what you want about the politicisation of the debate over his statue, that fact is immutable.

For any thinking Italian liberal, the conclusion has to be that the Montanelli statue must come down. It should be removed not by vandals or a howling mob, but by municipal workers instructed to do so by city authorities. This should be done to pave the way for an inclusive society in which black Italians can be participants rather than bystanders. But even more importantly, it should come down because if the liberals side with the predator rather than his twelve-year-old victim, then they’re worthy of the brutal ideologies Montanelli spent his life fighting. •