Located in the neighborhood of Little Italy, the church of Madonna Della Difesa is but one among a large number of churches in Montreal, which has acquired the nickname of “City of 100 Bell Towers.” What sets this particular church apart, other than its impressive Romanesque architecture, is the fact that one of the frescoes depicts former Italian dictator Benito Mussolini.
This mural was completed in 1933, years before the start of World War II. Back then, Mussolini was still somewhat admired for his strong leadership, even by North American politicians. He also gained a large following in the Italian diaspora around the world as he was seen by many as a savior and a uniting force for Italy. The fresco in the Madonna Della Difresa church commemorates an important pre-war moment during Mussolini’s rule: the 1929 signing of the Lateran Treaty where the sovereign state of the Vatican was created.
The church’s artist, Guido Nincheri, hadn’t included Mussolini in the original plans for the frescoes. It was the clergy that requested the Duce be fitted somewhere among the portraits of saints, religious figures and important Italian figures (such as inventor Guglielmo Marconi). He obliged and when the war started, he was jailed for three months due to his supposed fascist sympathies (which were never actually confirmed).
During World War II, the controversial fresco was covered by a tarp. In the years following the war people tried to have it removed but never managed to. Just last week, another petition was started in order to denounce what is seen as an homage to fascism.