Giulia Blasi is a writer and activist based in Rome, and the author of the feminist primer “Manuale per ragazze rivoluzionarie” (Rizzoli, 2018).
ROME — The wave of anger that has toppled statues across the world in recent weeks has found its target in Italy: the gilded bronze statue of journalist Indro Montanelli in Milan.
But the anger cuts both ways. No sooner was the statue splashed with red paint and Montanelli accused of racism and sexual abuse than the Italian establishment came to his rescue in righteous outrage.
It’s not the first time that an attack on the status quo has been met by heady blowback in Italy’s heavily patriarchal society, which is still largely allergic to accusations of inequality and discrimination, whether it’s about gender or race.
The same refusal to reckon with deep-rooted bias was on display in 2018, when the Italian actor Asia Argento was mercilessly attacked and ridiculed, first for being an early leader in the #MeToo campaign against Harvey Weinstein, then later for being accused herself of sexually abusing a young actor. Then, as now, the knee-jerk reaction is to rush to the defense of the accused white man.
There’s a reason Montanelli’s statue was defaced. (In 2019, feminist activists used pink paint to the same effect as part of the annual International Women’s Day protest.)
During his two years of service in the army in the second Italo-Ethiopian war in the 1930s, Montanelli bought — or rather “leased,” as he put it — a young Eritrean girl from her father for 350 lire, a horse and a rifle. The girl, whose name was either “Destà” or “Fatima,” was 12 or 14 at the time.
In a long, painfully detailed article that appeared in his column La stanza di Montanelli in 2000, the Italian man of letters described the girl as a “docile little animal” whose smell repulsed him, and whose mutilated genitals “resisted his ardor,” to the point that intercourse was only possible after her mother’s “brutal intervention.”
Montanelli never showed any remorse. In a 1969 television interview, he dismissed criticism of his actions by claiming customs were “different” in Africa. There’s nothing to suggest he ever regretted his treatment of her, or developed any self-awareness in later years.
And yet, the splashes of paint on Montanelli’s statue have been met with unanimous horror and condemnation in that subsection of the Italian population whose voice is still loudest: the old, upper-class white men who control the vast majority of power, money and media real estate in Italy.
These men, unsurprisingly, bristle at the suggestion that women and minorities may want to have a say in who gets to be commemorated in public spaces — and by extension in defining the shared values that govern Italian society. Their strenuous defense of Montanelli is really a strenuous defense of their own entitlement.
It’s striking to see how quick they are to minimize not just the treatment of the young girl Montanelli “leased,” but also — far more broadly — any voice or perspective that appears to threaten their dominion. This latest attack on Montanelli’s statue came after polite requests by civil rights activists to remove the statue were ignored by local authorities.
Even as the media jumped at the chance to dedicate plenty of space to the controversy, none went so far as to speak a journalist or writer of African descent, preferring to focus on the defacement of the statue and paint it as a horrific sign of disrespect bordering on lèse-majesté.
Beppe Severgnini, a columnist at Corriere della Sera — the Italian newspaper that hosted Montanelli’s column — described the acquisition and rape as “a wedding with a local girl” that Montanelli “agreed to.” Montanelli’s disciple Marco Travaglio, the editor in chief of Il Fatto Quotidiano, went so far as to frame the relationship with the girl as proof of Montanelli’s anti-racism.
In one stupefyingly tone-deaf video posted to his Instagram profile, Milan’s center-left Mayor Giuseppe Sala called Montanelli “a great journalist” who “championed the freedom of the press” and was shot in the legs by the Red Brigades as a result of this freedom.
Montanelli’s often controversial, right-wing views and dubious methods have never been thoroughly scrutinized.
“What do we ask of the people whom we choose to commemorate with a statue? Should they be without blemish?” Sala mused, as though the rape of a pre-teen were a misdemeanor, something that can be balanced out by a few well-written articles and books. (Sala said in a later post that he was “listening” to the criticism he was receiving for his comments.)
Carlo Cottarelli, the former director of the Department of Fiscal Affairs at the IMF, also chimed in along similar lines: “What Indro #Montanelli did in the ’30s does not justify the attack on his statue. That’s the monument to an Italian man who loved freedom, democracy, independent thought and honesty. Thank you, Montanelli,” he tweeted.
Truth be told, if we set aside the issue of the rape — which these commentators all insist we should do — Montanelli did not value democracy as much as his defenders would like to believe.
In a cable from 1978 unveiled by WikiLeaks in 2015, U.S. diplomats comment on the political situation in Italy by reporting that Montanelli believed that a “Pinochet-style” dictatorship would be better for the country than an alliance between the Christian Democrats and the Communists. The cable also claimed Montanelli was planning to throw his weight behind efforts to shut down any cooperation between the two parties. The alliance was put to rest that same year by the kidnapping and assassination of former Prime Minister Aldo Moro.
Montanelli’s often controversial, right-wing views and dubious methods have never been thoroughly scrutinized. For decades, his reputation as a solid, respectable professional has gone unchallenged. The tone of the debate around his legacy today suggests this is likely to continue.
Dismissing the experiences of women and minorities is quite literally the oldest trick in the patriarchal book. By turning the debate into one about public decorum and respect for a statue, Italy’s male-dominated ruling class is avoiding the real issue: how the victims of Italy’s deep-rooted racism and misogyny are systemically silenced through ridicule, shame or outright violence.
Montanelli’s story sits at the intersection of politics, class, gender and race — and it has never been more relevant than it is today, as activists across the world force uncomfortable conversations around discrimination and historical legacies of racism.
The outrage over paint — pink, then red — speaks of Italy’s refusal to reckon with misogyny and racism. It shows just how far the country’s establishment is willing to go in order to maintain its death grip on the structures that underpin their wealth and influence at the expense of others.