Can Europe Make It?

Montanelli: his statue and legacy is up for debate

The debate around the statue of a great Italian journalist – who as a fascist kept an African 12-year-old sex slave – mustn't stop here: it's a national, long-term conversation well worth having.

Alessio Colonnelli
17 June 2020
Indro Montanelli statue in the park dedicated to him daubed with red paint, June 14, 2020, Milan, Italy.
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Alessandro Bremec/PA. All rights reserved.

Unless you follow Italian news very closely, you may not have heard of a fierce debate on the statue of a journalist named Indro Montanelli.

Montanelli (1909-2001) worked for many years at Corriere della Sera; he then went on to found his own successful newspaper, Il Giornale, also based in Milan, which he walked out on after twenty years, aged 85, as Silvio Berlusconi – the publisher and then newly elected prime minister – tried to dictate a different editorial line. Montanelli thus returned to Corriere in 1995; for the next six years he produced a memorable daily column called “La stanza di Montanelli”. These stanzas are not exactly poetry, yet are revered as a paradigm of Italian journalism.

The toscanaccio – the brusque Tuscan – from Fucecchio, near Florence, was renowned for his very direct manners. He'd famously learned his trade in the US where he worked for the United Press. Short sentences, no big words or only when strictly necessary – straight to the point. Although many still haven't learned his fundamental lessons and keep drenching their styles in narcissism, Montanelli has at least had an impact on the way Italy's best journalists write.

One of these is Beppe Severgnini, the most important and talented among Montanelli's disciples. In 1994-95, in between slamming the door in Berlusconi's face and rejoining Corriere, Montanelli launched another short-lived newspaper, La Voce. Severgnini was a foreign correspondent there; his career was propelled into stardom. Today, he has 1.1 million Twitter followers and takes part in United Nations webinars on the state of the world.

The big debate

So what's the debate about? It's this: should Montanelli's statue be brought down or not? To make up our mind we really ought to dig up some other facts. Montanelli was a young officer in Eastern Africa. In 1935 he was put by Benito Mussolini's regime at the helm of a small battalion. He wrote a book about this experience, XX battaglione eritreo (20th Eritrean Battalion). It was well reviewed by Corriere – the beginning of a long career at the very top of Italian journalism, celebrated at the end of it with a statesman-like bronze.

That statue was daubed in pink paint by Italian feminists last year. Montanelli had taken a sex slave in Ethiopia, an Eritrean girl aged 12 – who “was leased to him,” as he famously recounted. But in the wake of the international hullabaloo after the racist killing of the African American George Floyd, many think that this feminist attack is great but not enough – the statue should be removed altogether. The Milanese gardens in which the statue is placed are called “Giardini Montanelli”. Protesters say this name should change. There have been Twitter storms about this.

Severgnini, a Corriere columnist and regular commentator for the New York Times, wrote an impassioned piece on June 11 arguing that these protesters are just being fanatical – Montanelli's statue must stay where it is. “Hands off Montanelli,” he wrote. Removing it, he argued, “would send many moderates towards the far right, which is just waiting for them with open arms.” A fair point. He then concluded by saying that this has already happened in the US, where “fanatics of 'political correctness' contributed to Donald Trump's election.” Needless to say, the social media storm turned into a hurricane, so much so that it has reached The Guardian.

Elsewhere in his controversial article, Severgnini acknowledged that Montanelli's story with the Eritrean girl “wasn't exemplary, of course, but that does not represent the man, the journalist and the things in which he believed and for which he fought.” Severgnini knew Montanelli personally, they worked together very closely, and the controversy must've touched a nerve. His fierce defence is all too understandable.

Which garden? Mine or yours?

Personally, I love Montanelli's writing as much as I love Severgnini's. My library is home to over sixty books between them. One is even a translation in German; another two in English. But why would I want to keep the last three as well? Memorabilia. I'm a fan of both writers. If all sixty tomes were stacked, they'd form a paper totem.

Yet, contemporary statues – if we really must have more statues in this country suffocating under marble and bronze – ought to be thought through properly. An example? Barack Obama deserves a statue, in the US at least, if one isn't there already, for bringing Americans together, the very opposite of Donald Trump's politics. You may think of others, hopefully women as well, deserving a permanent memorial; but a former fascist who acted far from irreproachably, whose rearguard battalion did kill people, and who only partially redeemed himself with exceptional writing? Never forget: to his own admission, Montanelli joined Mussolini's army voluntarily, believing in the transforming power of fascism and looking for adventure.

So, let's not get emotional about this. We are talking about public space, after all, not our back garden (I don't have one anyway). Consider: his statue isn't in tiny Fucecchio either, but bang in the middle of a global city with a metropolitan population of over 5 million. This isn't local news, it's a matter for a proper national discussion. Foreign observers are looking on. It's about who we are as a modern country, and how much we appreciate our own republic's founding values. How are these to be reconciled with Montanelli's homophobia, for example? “If we allow 'gay marriage' we won't have any more arguments to oppose to threesome-marriages, or any other variations on the theme,” he wrote in Corriere as recently as 15 January 1999.

No dialogue, no plaques – no statue?

Some of us may be unabashed admirers of his journalistic work on Italy's history and politics, as I am, the work of a mature man and a formidable writer who reconsidered some of his actions as a younger adult and squeezed all the good juice out of the Italian language fruit; yet the argument of bringing Montanelli's statue down should be listened to carefully – perhaps his statue shouldn't have been put up in the first place. This is a conversation worth pursuing. Talk must continue, not shut down.

Yes, it must; because a year before passing away, the toscanaccio came up with this, as a Stanza reply to a young woman who had sent him a letter at his paper: “I hope you're not upset [about the Eritrean girl story]. If you are, you've only got yourself to blame.”

So, why not put this last sentence on a plaque under the statue, to clarify that yes, he was charismatic and taught many the importance of studying history, of listening carefully so as to write without ego, but also indulged in the worst fascist behaviour in his twenties and was out of order at times with his offensive sharp tongue?

This piece was published on the author's blog, Thoughts on Europe, on June 15, 2020.

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