The Italian neighborhood of Montreal – popularly known as La Petite Italie– houses coffee shops, pizzerias, galleries and sporting goods stores. Also the temple of Our Lady of Defense, of the early twentieth century, considered the spiritual epicenter of the Italians in Canada and known for a striking detail: the dictator Benito Mussolini appears, riding on a horse, in the fresco that decorates the vault of its apse.
"It is not logical to see Mussolini in church if we think about everything he did. I remember that I was very surprised when I saw the image for the first time, "says one of the parishioners, Arcangelo Burcheri, who arrived in Montreal from his native Sicily at the age of 14. It was 1953. Today he enjoys his retirement, after decades of work in the textile industry. "There are people in favor and against the image among the Italians of the city, but it is not an issue that raises passions."
The Italian community of Montreal is the oldest in the United States. The first considerable group of families from the European country arrived in 1860, although the two largest waves of migration took place from 1880 to 1925 and from 1950 to 1960. "Making the Americas" was a project that marked the coordinates of New York and Buenos Aires Aires, but also those of the most populated city of Quebec that, in those years, was the largest in Canada.
The author of the fresco is Guido Nincheri, born in Prato (Tuscany) in 1885, installed in the Canadian city from 1915 and died in 1073. The authorship is clear, but with the dates there are more doubts: it was at some point, still Indeterminate, between 1930 and 1933, according to specialists. Nincheri is considered one of the most important artists of religious art in North America. In addition to his works in architecture, painting and stained glass in churches, such as Saint-Viateur (Montreal) or San Antonio de Padua (Ottawa), he also showed his talent in secular venues such as the Boston Opera House and the Natural History Museum of Providence (Rhode Island).
In the late 1940s, Nincheri was accused of propaganda for the Mussolini regime with the fresco of Montreal and sent to the military camp of Petawawa (Ontario). Mélanie Grondin, editor of the magazine Montreal Review of Books, published last year The Art and Passion of Guido Nincheri, an extensive biography of the artist. "He had more luck than others. He was imprisoned only three months. Giulia, his wife, got his release. He managed to get several prestigious members of the Montrealese community to testify to clarify that he had no links with fascism. He also showed the original plan of the work, where neither Mussolini nor Pope Pius XI appeared. And he was forced to include these images by religious authorities under threat of breaking the contract, "Grondin tells EL PAÍS. "The reason behind Nincheri's refusal is still unclear. His son George said that the artist did not want to paint secular events in religious buildings. However, he did it in other places, "he adds.
In the years of the war, various voices asked to erase the image of Mussolini from the church. Those responsible for the temple covered the fresco with blankets throughout the war. Critical opinions ceased for several decades. However, they were heard again in 2002, when the fresco was restored at a cost of 1.5 million Canadian dollars (about 990,000 euros). Loris Palma, leader of the restoration project, commented in those days to the newspaper Le Devoir: "It is not an advertisement of fascism. Mussolini will continue to appear, since it is one of the figures of the episode that shows the work. It can not be erased, as they ask, because it would mean damaging all the fresco. " The church was declared a national historic site by the Canadian Government in November of that year.
The work that immortalizes the dictator was made to celebrate the signing of the Lateran Covenants, the agreements that in 1929 granted political independence to the Vatican and re-established relations between Rome and the Holy See. In addition to Mussolini, in the fresco figure Pope Pius XI and Guglielmo Marconi, the inventor who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1909 and who served as Italian senator when these pacts were signed.
In his book Fascism and the Italians of MontrealFilippo Salvatore, professor at Concordia University, shows that the Duce was admired among many members of the Italian community in the Canadian city. They even managed to organize some marches, with the distinctive black shirts, in their support. Salvatore also recounts how diverse actors of importance in Quebecois nationalism of the time did not hide their sympathy for the satrap. On the other hand, many Italians close to communism or socialism or who simply preferred to lead a life away from politics, openly showed their position against the dictator.
A petition still circulates on the Internet, directed to the Quebecois Party, demanding that Mussolini disappear from the cool. "Let us not forget that it opened more than 50 concentration camps for Jews, Gypsies and Slavs after having established one of the most bloodthirsty dictatorships in Europe," reads a document prepared by the Quebec Facho Watch collective. "Nincheri said that art should never be destroyed. The work is a tool to show people the Italian history and, in the same way, to count the imprisonment of several Italo-Canadians during the war, "says Mélanie Grondin. Arcangelo Burcheri, who has always been against the image of the dictator in the temple, thinks, instead, that devotees go to church without thinking about Mussolini for a long time: "I am more concerned about the strength that has returned to Charge fascism in Italy that cool. "