Tearing Down Statues in Italy and the Public Debate on the Country’s Colonial Past

leggi in italiano

by Andrea Tarchi, Euromix PhD Researcher, 17 July 2020

Indro Montanelli in Ethiopia in 1936.

The killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis on May 25, 2020, by the hands of the police, has sparked a wave of transnational protests led by the Black Lives Matter movement. The protests, which initially targeted the systems of racial inequality and police brutality specific to the USA, soon crossed the Atlantic and found their articulation in the European context. While the protests primarily addressed the contemporary structural racialized inequalities that find their roots in Europe’s colonial history, they also targeted a specific symbolic field. In particular, they focused on the statues that still value and celebrate individuals who have played a vital role in the institution and proliferation of the slave trade and colonial economies. This is not the first time that statues have come under attack by protesters – the most famous case being the Rhodes Must Fall movement that sparked in 2015.1 The difference is that now statues are being taken down, as exemplified by the now-famous case of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol.2 This wave of protests against symbols of colonialism and slavery reached Italy as well, specifically targeting the statue of a famous Italian journalist, Indro Montanelli, who engaged in a concubinage relationship with an Eritrean minor during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia in 1936. Montanelli’s story, as much as the narrative behind his statue and the protests that it ignited, represent an extremely telling cross-section of Italian society and its relationship with its colonial past.  In light of the worldwide call for racial justice that followed the killing of George Floyd, Italy’s public debate on the statue of Montanelli sheds light on the lack of the country’s self-reflection on its colonial past and the effects it still has on its contemporary systemic inequalities.

Colonial Concubinage: The Symbol of Colonialism’s Intersectional Violence

During colonialism, white upper-class military officers and colonial officials often engaged in sexual relationships with racialized women in the colonies, in a practice that was widely endorsed for centuries as a means to provide affluent white men away from home with a sexual outlet more dignified than prostitution. As the practice was so exemplificative of the racial, gendered, and class-based power relations inherent to colonial settings, it was widespread throughout colonies on different continents and at different times. The cases of concubinage studied in the contexts of Spanish (McKinley 2014), Dutch (Ming 1983, Stoler 2002), and English (Ballhatchet 1980, Hyam 1986) colonies are just some examples of the research that testifies to how diffuse the practice was. The Italian colonies made no exception, as attested by the research conducted by Sòrgoni (1998) and Barrera (2002) on the specific form of concubinage between Italian officers and Eritrean women known as madamato. As for the other colonial contexts, mixed relationships of concubinage were endorsed by Italian colonial administrators, who often pushed army officers to take a local woman as a concubine as a means of sexual and domestic comfort.

One of such officers deployed in Eastern Africa during the Italian invasion of Ethiopia (1935-1937) was Indro Montanelli, a Tuscan officer who eventually went on to become one of the most celebrated journalists in Italian history. The then-24-year-old lieutenant was instructed by his superior to “lease”3 from her parents a 12-year-old Bilen child named Fatima (but renamed by Montanelli himself Destà) as a concubine. After rising to fame in post-Fascist Republican Italy, Montanelli reminisced about his concubine on multiple occasions without disowning his behavior as a white male colonizer toward his racialized concubine. In one occasion, when asked by a television host, he boasted in derogatory terms about “having chosen a pretty plaything,”4 while in an advice column he later characterized his critics as “imbeciles, for not recognizing that a girl in tropical countries at fourteen is already a woman, and after twenty she is an old hag.”5 Unsurprisingly, these statements provoked criticism from activists and intellectuals alike, with the event being broadly considered in the Italian media discourse as a stain in the career of a brilliant man. This stain, however, did not stop the municipality of Milan from erecting a statue in his honor in the historical center of the city in 2002, one year after the journalist’s death.

Predictably, the statue has created plenty of criticism from various feminist, LGBT+, and anti-racist activist associations throughout the years, given the journalist unapologetically blunt recounts of his sexual relationship with the Eritrean child. Such criticism sharply resurfaced on June 13, 2020, as part of the worldwide protests ignited by the killing of George Floyd. The statue was ‘vandalized’: at its base, a group of students who claimed the action, wrote ‘racist, rapist’ (razzista, stupratore), and they covered it with red paint. In a video they subsequently published, they asked for the ‘knocking down’ (abbattimento) of the statue.6 Protesters identified the statue of Montanelli as the celebration of an individual who unapologetically exploited and exerted sexual colonial violence on a racialized child. As for the statues in Bristol and the USA, Montanelli’s statue represents a symbol of the racist and patriarchal legacies of colonialism in the eyes of the protesters.

Why It Still Matters: the Italian Public Debate on the Memory of Colonialism

The activists’ action prompted a public debate on the value of the statue and of the journalist himself. Defenders of the value of the man which the statue celebrated mainly make use of an old argument that researchers of Italian colonialism know very well. Such an argument revolves around the minimization of the link that binds contemporary Italian society to its colonial past. In this case, its declination conveys a normalization of the practice of concubinage during colonialism, which was encouraged by colonial administrators. Along these lines, Marco Travaglio, an influential contemporary journalist, argued that Montanelli was “a son of his time” and that it is wrong “to judge historical events with eyes belonging to many decades later.”7 Another first-rate columnist such as Beppe Severgnini weighed in to underline how “that story – not exemplary, of course – does not represent the man, the journalist, the things he believed in and fought for.”8 The protest was short-lived, and it has never reached the critical mass required for toppling the statue. Similarly, the public debate around the value of the statue and its historical meaning for our society died away in a matter of weeks. However, both the protest and the debate that it ignited highlights the still relevant disconnect between Italy’s colonial past and its contemporary society.

On the one hand, the protest in itself is telling of the quality of Italy’s public discourse over its colonial past and postcolonial present. The target of the Italian activists’ iconoclastic fury has not been as one would expect: figures such as Benito Mussolini, for its colonial and imperial politics and the issuing of racial laws, or even lesser figures of the Fascist party such as war criminal Rodolfo Graziani, the architect of the mass murder of tens of thousands of Libyans and Ethiopians (Del Boca, 2005), have not been touched by the protest. It has been said that Italy is littered with Fascist monuments, which make it daunting to address them, or even, that they are so ‘fused’ with the context that they have become almost normalized, invisible.9 On the other hand, the public debate exemplified by the two cited articles consolidates the reality of detachment of today’s Italy from its past horrors. In his defenders’ view, what Montanelli did before he became what he was famous for, the racist acts that he committed at a historical moment when they were socially acceptable, should not tarnish the public’s view of him. The absorption of a part of Italy’s Fascist past, such as its infrastructure and public welfare legacies on one side, and the collective removal of its horrors on the other, are part of the same removal of the Fascist and colonial memory from the Italian public discourse. As written by the first Italian postcolonial scholar, Angelo del Boca, racism in Italy is “a product of the total denial of colonial atrocities, the lack of debate on colonialism, and the survival, in the collective imaginary, of convictions and theories of justification” (Del Boca 2003, 34).

The lack of public debate on Italian colonialism and its legacy is continuously expressed in the material and discursive systems of power that reproduce the hierarchies and meanings of patriarchy and white supremacy. Moreover, it links such systems of power to what Lombardi-Diop called “the nonraciality of postcolonial Italy” (Lombardi-Diop 2012, 176), according to which Italians see themselves as “racially unmarked” and are therefore seldom aware of their racial privilege vis-à-vis racialized people. Within this context, the matter concerning Montanelli and its statue is telling on multiple levels. While it underscores the “colonial aphasia”10 (Stoler 2011) of Italian society and its inability to weigh its colonial past appropriately, it also underlines just how much Italian society has incorporated colonialism’s legacy within its contemporary power structures. On another level, the temporary relevance of the protest that stands like an island of self-awareness in an ocean of silence and denial reveals the infertility of the Italian public debate with regards to its racist past and present. The story of Montanelli and Fatima, although exemplificative of the intersectional axes of oppression of colonialism and its contemporary legacy, cannot be the only point of public discussion in society that still regards its colonial past as marginal. A broader debate, in which Italy’s colonial history is put at the forefront of the analysis of the intersectional axes of oppression that still haunt Italian society, was and still is sorely needed.



Ballhatchet, Kenneth. Race, Sex, and Class Under the Raj: Imperial Attitudes and Policies and Their Critics, 1793-1905. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1980.

Barrera, Giulia. “Colonial Affairs: Italian Men, Eritrean Women, and the Construction of Racial Hierarchies in Colonial Eritrea (1885-1941).” Ph.D. diss., Northwestern University (Evansville, Ill.), 2002.

Del Boca, Angelo. 2003. “The Myths, Suppressions, Denials, and Defaults of Italian Colonialism.” A Place in the Sun: Africa in Italian Colonial Culture from Post-Unification to the Present, edited by Patrizia Palumbo, 17-36. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Del Boca, Angelo. Italiani, brava gente?. Vicenza: Neri Pozza Editore, 2011.

Hyam, Robert. “Concubinage and the Colonial Service: The Crewe Circular (1909). The Journal of Imperial and Commonwealth History, 14(3), (1986): 170–186.

Lombardi-Diop, Cristina. 2012. “Postracial/Postcolonial Italy.” In Postcolonial Italy, edited by Cristina Lombardi-Diop and Caterina Romeo, 175-190. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

McKinley, Michelle A. “Illicit Intimacies: Virtuous Concubinage in Colonial Lima.” Journal of Family History 39, no. 3 (July 2014): 204–21.

Ming, Hanneke. “Barracks-Concubinage in the Indies, 1887-1920.” Indonesia, no. 35 (1983): 65-94

Sòrgoni, Barbara. Parole e corpi: antropologia, discorso giuridico e politiche sessuali interrazziali nella colonia Eritrea: 1890-1941. Napoli, Edizioni scientifiche Italiane, 1998.

Stoler, Ann Laura. Carnal Knowledge and Imperial Power: Race and the Intimate in Colonial Rule. (University of California Press, 2002), 44-45.

Stoler, Ann Laura. “Colonial Aphasia: Race and Disabled Histories in France.” In Public Culture 23, no. 1 (2011): 121-156.

  1. The Rhodes Must Fall protest movement began on March 9, 2015, and was directed against the statue of colonialist Cecil Rhodes at the University of Cape Town (UCT). The campaign for the statue’s removal gathered global support and led to a wider request to decolonize education in South Africa. On 9 April 2015, following a UCT Council decision, the statue was removed.
  2. The statue of the merchant and slave trader Edward Colston, which was erected in the city center of Bristol in 1895 to celebrate his philanthropic activities, was toppled by protesters on June 7, 2020. The statue had been at the center of controversy for many years, but it was toppled and replaced only due to the worldwide protests in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.
  3. Indro Montanelli gave this account of his experience with colonial concubinage in 1969 on the RAI tv show “L’ora della verità” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYgSwluzYxselvi).
  4. Ibid.
  5. Montanelli, Indro. “La stanza di Montanelli.” Il Corriere della Sera, February 12, 2000.
  6. Rete Studenti Milano (RSM) and Laboratorio universitario Metropolitano (LuMe).
  7. Marco Travaglio spoke in defense of Montanelli during the tv show Accordi & Disaccordi, aired on June 13, 2020, on the digital platform Loft.
  8. Severgnini, Beppe. “Nessuno tolga Montanelli dai suoi giardini”. Il Corriere della Sera. June 20, 2020.
  9. https://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/why-are-so-many-fascist-monuments-still-standing-in-italy
  10. In the words of Stoler herself, “the term “colonial aphasia” is invoked to supplant the notions of “amnesia” or “forgetting,” to focus rather on three features: an occlusion of knowledge, a difficulty generating a vocabulary that associates appropriate words and concepts with appropriate things, and a difficulty comprehending the enduring relevancy of what has already been spoken” (Stoler 2011).

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