History of an Italian

The Light of Clarifications to Dispel the Shadow of Revenge

Igiaba Scego

The story is well-known: Indro Montanelli was one of the many volunteers in the war of aggression that Italy launched against free Ethiopia in the 1930s. The role of the then very young Montanelli was – for a short time, to tell the truth – that of chief officer of a band of local soldiers: the Ascari. But after a small accident his adventure “in the open air” – as he called it – soon came to an end. When Mussolini, on 9 May 1936, announced “the reappearance of the Empire on the fateful hills of Rome”, his Fascist Empire in Africa, in continuity with the Empire of Augustus, Montanelli had already moved to the quieter rear of the conflict, and more precisely to the press and propaganda office of the army, writing numerous articles in the newspaper “La Nuova Eritrea”. The adventure – as Montanelli defined it – was later glorified in a text of his entitled XX Battaglione eritreo.Here, like a new Kipling, he described his very personal, and colonial, white man’s burden, in perpetual struggle with wild nature and with the character of a band of men, the Ascari, of brutal martial essence. It was he, Montanelli claimed, with his Italic civilisation, who had managed to make them necessary for Mussolini’s war and devoted to Italy. The words written by the young Montanelli resound with echoes of Conrad. This was the first brick on which the journalist built his long career. Over time, this colonial Indro was outclassed by the other aspects of his life, not least the engagement-confrontation with Silvio Berlusconi, in the years of success for his political projects and for his governments. In fact, Berlusconi’s number one enemy, Indro Montanelli, never beloved of progressives, became a sort of bipartisan flag in the 1990s and 2000s, to be waved when necessary, erasing his past that was inconvenient for progressive thought, that of the immediate post-war period or the Years of Lead, and hoisting him onto the pedestal of the fight against Berlusconism. At the moment of his death, Montanelli’s coffin was surrounded by mutually antithetical Italians, conservatives and progressives, who saw in him a beacon of reason against an Italy now gripped by the sly smile and the manoeuvrings of the Mediaset boss, the man who united the power of government with the power of TV, the Italian tycoon who set an example for the rest of the world. Going against such a power made Montanelli a hero. But those raised up on pedestals also become hard to knock down again. And, posthumously, his figure became central again, for entirely different reasons than those that had turned him into a hero. And here we come back to the colonialist Montanelli, the one who was somewhat forgotten, opaque, not central: Italy was changing again, and History illuminated aspects that were thought to have been forgotten and put them back centre stage in an unexpected way. Around the mid-2010s, at the time when the long wave of post-colonialism arrived in Italy as well as the awareness that the migratory phenomenon was now key to the nation’s very structure, Italy realised, especially in the intellectual sphere (in the academic world, in artistic circles), that it had never dealt with its colonial past or, better, that those who had dealt with it had been considered eccentric, little studied, relegated to mere military historiography. In Italy, we have had great scholars of colonialism. First and foremost was Angelo Del Boca who, together with Montanelli, engaged in a long discussion on the use of mustard gas in Ethiopia by Italian troops, a thesis that Montanelli denied for years. The fact remains that Del Boca is unanimously considered a pioneer of colonial studies, and his Gli italiani in Africa orientale is a historiographical bible. Yet, he was not the only one. We need only think of Nicola Labanca or Alessandro Triulzi, who brought to the foreground hidden aspects, especially military ones, of an occupation that barely made it into the history books. But already at the beginning of the 2000s, and more forcefully in the 2010s, there was a stance on what colonial history represented for Italy in terms of racism, sexism, and classism. By then Italy had become plural, there were many black presences and, among them, many from the Horn of Africa, who asserted their awareness with their bodies, their works, and their reflections. These presences were joined by academics – mostly women – who, making post-colonial studies their own, focused on aspects that military historiography had touched on only tangentially. This also meant recovering the thought of female or minority historians: indeed Giulia Barrera and Giulietta Stefani – who began a thread of studies with her Colonia per maschi – became part of a decolonial historical curriculum . They delved into aspects such as forced concubinage, the so-called madamato, into which colonised women were forced, the stories of the continuous violations of their bodies, the tragic fate of children abandoned in the colony because they were the result of sexual encounters – consensual or not – with local women, the consequences of the racial laws in the colony, and more. And in this phase, the figure of colonialist Montanelli had a new centrality, a harmful one but nevertheless a starting point, which sees movements (feminist and otherwise) and academia in constant exchange and dialogue. Montanelli had never hidden his past. Indeed, over time he boasted of what he called “the adventure”. And he left us numerous interventions, both on video and in writing, in which he showed no repentance; on the contrary, colonialism was described as a revitalising moment for his virility: the solitary outings on horseback, the command over a group of soldiers, but also the exotic sexual adventure, almost a colonial topos, with the beautiful “native” woman. The figure of the “other” woman made her appearance – and this is well-known history – in Gianni Bisiach’s programme L’ora della verità, where, good-naturedly prompted by his colleague’s questions, Montanelli talks about his “pet”, a 12-year-old girl (later, in other versions, she is 14) bought by her father along with other knick-knacks, for a few coins. Smartly turned out, with a turtleneck jumper, a jacket, and the sly look of someone who wants to surprise, Montanelli almost justifies himself with a wave of his hand by pointing out that being “a 12-year-old in Africa is something else”, because in Africa – and it is the colonial Indro that takes over – they are “already” women. The programme could have ended there. The public would perhaps have accepted that “they” are women at the age of 12 and we would have moved on, after a quick turnaround, to some musicarello in vogue at the time. But it was 1969, Italy was changing, women were changing, and, from the audience, a woman, Elvira Banotti, a daughter of Italian colonialism, an Afro-descendant, told the colonial Indro – who was jigging in the studio in his high-necked jumper and tailored jacket – that in Africa it was no different, that at 12 years old it was rape. There can be no consensual intercourse with a minor in a subservient position.

The woman, speaking a radiant Italian, lined up a series of watchwords that would later be taken up by the movements of the 2010s.

Montanelli would return several times to the story of the girl forced into concubinage. Of course, he never spoke of forcing himself on her. He would romantically define her as his child bride, sometimes calling her Destà, other times Fatima, showing Enzo Biagi, who interviewed him attentively, a rather blurred portrait, of a girl in profile, with a headscarf on her head and a half-smile on her face. In fact, he left a trail of evidence of what would be recognised by activists – and not only by them – as a sex crime, with the aggravating circumstance of his smug attitude toward it; in all his writings Montanelli boasted of his adventure, reiterating several times that he did not deny anything, even though he recognised that “daddy” Mussolini’s was a geopolitical mistake, a war of aggression when the time for direct colonialism was over.

Montanelli’s story tells a lot on a historiographical level, with its facts, omissions, and inventions. And even for those who are not historians, it presents interesting – and certainly disturbing – aspects that tell of a period of contradictions that could become the subject of artistic, political reflection. How much truth is there to the story which Montanelli told? How much comes from real life and how much from the fictional or diaristic echoes of others? How much is just cliché? Was it really an open-air adventure? Was it easy for him to be away from home and comforts? Was he a martial type or did he pretend to be one? What was his real relationship with the colonial troops he led? And why, once wounded, did he prefer to write from the rear instead of returning to the much-loved adventure? And did the 12-year-old girl he romantically refers to as his “bride” really exist? Or did he sublimate, in her, paid sexual encounters or erotic fantasies based on books, photographs, and other men’s experiences? How much do we know about this girl? What do we know about her life – if we do admit her real existence – after Montanelli? It was he who revealed in one of his interviews that the girl, by then a woman, had had a child with a fellow countryman and had named him Indro. So much so that some historians, doubtful of this vague information, went to Eritrea in search of this Indro, without finding him.

The fact is that there is no evidence of Montanelli’s colonial history, no documents or oral testimony, except his own words. In front of this tale, which is not History, but is certainly a personal revisitation of his own history, there is, however, the spirit of self-vindication. And this is, for me – and here I speak for myself – the revealing aspect of the Montanelli affair. The fact that his “coloniality” is experienced as a construction of his masculine self. And how this self reverberated in the lives of many Italian “males” in the post-war period, shaping part of our Republic and its shadows. I who write do not know, as I have no evidence, whether what Montanelli told about his life in the colony is true or not, but I do know that his account gives us tools to understand the colonial residue that intoxicates Italy today, and which we have not managed to get rid of. It speaks to us of grey areas. Of manifest ambiguities. The colonial is not, cannot be by its very nature, the space of black and white, the space of certainty. It can only be an in-between zone, a grey, murky space of little clarity. And every story, from the most uplifting to the bleakest, must prompt us to use our tools of reflection. To not settle for easy explanations. We must not look for heroes, but neither must we fabricate monsters. Sincerely, we must find the balance of facts and, in the absence of certainty, try to construct complex knowledge. This has not been the case in recent years; we have preferred to pull History to one side or the other according to our respective positions.

And back to Montanelli: on 22 May 2006, almost five years after his death, a bronze sculpture portraying him was revealed in Milan. The ceremony takes place in the presence of Mayor Gabriele Albertini. The operation is part of an urban design to pay homage to the conservative wing of this northern city. The location is no coincidence, in the exact place where the journalist had been shot during the Years of Lead, a tribute, therefore, to the post-war Montanelli, conservative, at times extreme, the subject of a political clash with progressivism, preceding the Pax Berlusconiana between conservatives and progressives. But after a few years, in 2019, this statue underwent a change of sign: upon the march for International Women’s Day, the feminist movement Non una di meno threw pink washable ink over the statue in a demonstrative action. In order to emphasise the toxicity of the colonial history of which Montanelli was the bearer, it focused on the Fatima-Destà episode. The protest had a disruptive force – the protest totally effective. The spotlight was turned on the colonialist Montanelli. A debate set underway. But what started as a right and proper act did not prompt, especially among scholars, a frank and sincere discussion on the period and masculinity, as analysed by Giulietta Stefani in her book. The masculine crossing of the colony, with its patriarchy and racism – and one need only read Ennio Flaiano, who in Tempo di uccidere took a real, merciless snapshot of those who went to the colony – has unfortunately remained in the background. And the Montanelli affair has turned in on itself, with further demonstrative acts on the sculpture, with red paint instead of pink, with the construction of temporary antagonistic sculptures, the appearance of a statue of Sankara – the Burkina Faso leader assassinated in 1987 – as well as a mural in which Fatima-Destà is depicted as a Black Lives Matter activist, or rather, in the same fighting stance.

And so, for many movements and scholars, Montanelli Indro, journalist, conservative, factotum of many histories of Italy, secret or otherwise, became a symbol of the degeneration of colonialism. The “monstrosity” has, however, led to a failure to see many other monsters. For example, the figure of Rodolfo Graziani, the fascist hierarch and war criminal to whom a military shrine was dedicated in 2012, a slap in the face to the country’s anti-fascist constitution, is hardly known. His colonial, violent, criminal history is still shrouded in oblivion, and Graziani was more functional in the construction of the twenty-year fascist period than the young Montanelli was. Both tell a long-forgotten story. And the mention of Graziani serves as a reminder that those who work with history need a broad outlook. Not “postcolonial” revenge but “postcolonial” clarity. Symbols, which instead of becoming the playground of opposing factions, nullifying the strength of their contradictory histories, can be transformed into an opportunity for tight, effective, complex debate. A historiographical debate, outside the academic sphere, that lands in classrooms and teaches us the chiaroscuro of History. This applies to the figures of Montanelli and Graziani, but also to the cupboards filled with family shame, where the stories of grandparents, uncles, fathers, no longer become something to be hidden, for fear of being judged, but burst out in the heart of the nation. In this resides the essential sense – almost a programme for the future – of the title of Davide Orecchio’s novel, Storia aperta (Open History). The vicissitudes of Orecchio’s father are narrated by his son through close archival research, but also by dredging up forgotten family memories. The profile emerges of a character who was at first convincedly fascist, colonialist, and then convincedly communist. Only to become, in the last years of his life, an orphan of ideologies. With a majestic style, made up of many external and internal voices that each in turn take over, the author tells us that human existence is complex; full of curves, rises, sudden collapses, moments of shame and credit. A life that can never be closed within the rigid scheme of an ideological frontier, but must necessarily be open. No longer flag, fetish, reversal, but “open history”, real and hybrid.