The statue of one of Italy’s most revered journalists, who bought a 12-year-old Eritrean girl to be his wife during Italy’s colonial occupation in the 1930s, is being targeted by protesters – for the second time. In 2019, on International Women’s Day, protesters splashed Indro Montanelli’s statue with pink paint and over the weekend, it was painted red and sprayed with the words “racist” and “rapist,” with a petition calling for its removal.
Montanelli, who died in 2001 at age 92, was a noted foreign and war correspondent who, according to the AP, “chronicled contemporary Italy from its colonial era through fascism, Italy’s postwar reconstruction and the anti-corruption scandals that overturned Italy’s political class in the 1990s.”
His legacy is, however, being called to question as he acknowledged buying the Eritrean girl to be his wife when he was 24 and leading a battalion of Eritreans during the Fascist regime’s colonial rule.
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Montanelli, who worked for many years at Corriere della Sera, before becoming the founding editor of Silvio Berlusconi’s Il Giornale, said during a 1969 interview that he didn’t find anything wrong with his relationship with the girl named Desta.
“I think I chose well. She was a beautiful girl of 12 years,” Montanelli said during the interview, adding with a smile: “Excuse me. But in Africa it was another thing.”
When Eritrean-born journalist Elvira Banotti, who was in the audience during the interview, accused him of rape and violent colonialist behavior, Montanelli argued that there was no rape because girls in Eritrea married at the age of 12.
He said marrying the girl was part of the region’s tradition and this was common among Eritrean soldiers, even though it would have been seen as rape in Europe.
Today, in the wake of global anti-racism protests that have targeted monuments connected to slavery and colonialism, there is a petition to have Montanelli’s statue removed from a city park near where he was once attacked by the far-left Red Brigades.
But Milan’s mayor, Beppe Sala, has refused calls to remove the statue, saying that even though he had seen the video in which Montanelli admitted he had bought the girl, the journalist “was more than that.”
“…He was a great journalist, a journalist who fought for the liberty of the state, an independent journalist. Maybe for these reasons he was shot in the legs,” Sala said, referring to the 1977 attack on Montanelli by the Red Brigades.
“Now I invite all of us, I invite our community to reflect on two issues. The first question I ask myself and you is what do we ask of personalities we want to remember with a statue, with a plaque, with the name of a street or a square, or a garden? Do we ask for a spotless life?” he asked in a video posted on Facebook.
“For a life in which everything was absolutely right? It is possible. However, few would remain to remember.
“And the second question that I ask myself and you is: When we judge our lives, can we say that our own is spotless? And without things that we wouldn’t do again?”
“I put my hands up, my life is not. I made mistakes, I did things I wish I hadn’t done, but lives must be judged in their complexity. For all these reasons, I think that the statue must remain there. I am nevertheless available to discuss the issue of racism and Montanelli whenever you want,” the mayor said Sunday.
That same day, city workers removed the graffiti and paint and covered the statue with plastic while an investigation has been launched into the attack on the statue, according to the AP.
Montanelli, before his death, wrote about his marriage with the Eritrean girl in a collection of essays published in 2000, titled “La Stanza di Montanelli.”
Writing in Corriere della Sera in 2000 in response to a letter from a reader, Montanelli said the girl married an Eritrean after he left, and named her first of three children Indro. Traveling back to Eritrea in 1952, the journalist wrote that the girl “received me like a father.”
To date, many of Montanelli’s supporters believe that pulling down the statue of a free journalist “stinks of fanaticism.” Alberto Malvolti, president of the Montanelli Bassi Foundation, which conserves Montanelli’s legacy, said removing the statue “would be an offense to the memory of the most popular and appreciated Italian journalist of the 20th century, as well as representing an insult to the city of Milan.”