The next time you’re in Little Italy, make sure to head down avenue Henri-Julien to the Church of the Madonna della Difesa. Enter this Catholic place of worship and look up. There — surrounded by angels, saints, and henchmen — you’ll see a fresco of the Italian dictator Benito Mussolini in this Montreal church.

The fresco was painted by artist Guido Nincheri in 1931, a time when fascism was gaining in popularity in Montreal and around the world among some segments of the population.

It’s long been a contentious piece of work, but now, as protests against injustice and racism have renewed attention to problematic parts of our past, over 100 people have signed a petition calling on the church to put the fresco into historical context using plaques and memorials.

The petition was launched by a committee of scholars including Marta Boni and Luca Sollai of the Université de Montréal, Cassandra Marsillo of Dawson College, Giuliana Minghelli of McGill University, Marco Piana of Smith College, and filmmaker Giovanni Princigalli.

We spoke to a few committee members to get their knowledge on the subject. Their words have been edited and condensed for clarity.

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"We have a duty to do a better job," says Dawson College's Cassandra Marsillo

Our priority is making sure everyone who visits the church understands the contested history of this fresco, which itself is reflective of some of the complex history of the Italian-Montreal community. 

We hope that the church and our community, including ourselves, start doing the difficult work of untangling our history with the fascist regime and its legacies that linger to this day.

During WWII, for example, the image of Mussolini was covered with a tarp. After the church was recently restored, they decided to leave the marks where the nails held it up.

I think this is a really interesting decision and a great opportunity to talk about how the community has engaged with Mussolini's presence in this fresco over time.

Much of this history isn't discussed, however.

The current pamphlet provided to visitors has only a few lines explaining "Why Mussolini?"

It's based in justifications that don't acknowledge the reality, instead perpetuating a narrative that, at the time, everyone liked Mussolini anyway, as he hadn't allied with Hitler yet, and that it's meant to represent the signing of the Lateran Pact between the Vatican and the Italian government, not the dictator himself.

But, the dictator himself is still present. And so, we have a duty to do a better job. 

"Works of art are symbols that enmesh with the space they occupy," says Marco Piana of Smith College

There have absolutely, and quite understandably, been calls for the image of Mussolini to be removed.

For most Italian citizens seeing the triumphal figure of Mussolini still alive and well in a church can be a shock.

It's important to remember that, in Italy, any attempt to reinstate fascism is condemned by the constitution (see articolo 12).

Most Italians have a good understanding of what Mussolini has done, and they would never accept to see him portrayed like that.

The current movements challenging the legacy of slavery and racism in North America certainly impacted our decision. Despite what some might think, the past is not a piece of inert matter.

History continually interacts with the present, and the way we tell history tells a lot about our current society. Personally, I completely understand the need for removing symbols of the past linked to oppression, racism, and slavery.

Works of art are symbols that enmesh with the space they occupy. But sweeping its meaning under the rug with the excuse of leaving the past to the past is not enough.

"Removing it is not the answer," says Giuliana Minghelli of McGill

Our initiative is an example of counter-cancel culture.

Removing it is not the answer. We want to bring culture and history onto the surface. Make it visible, make it something people can look at to understand the fraught and complex nature of any historical representation.

And at the time Mussolini was the darling of the West, the darling of Churchill, revered and admired in the United States as a strong leader that put Italy on the right track, and yet it does not excuse the presence of Mussolini there and is actually revealing of unjudging attitudes that the world has toward Italian fascism.

We should be able to recognize fascism early on and that is very important for us now because we are surrounded by manifestations of intolerance, hatred, bigotry and violence.

And so, we should be able to call it out now rather than think it will go away or think it’s just something that should be accepted.

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