The Black History Month celebrations, which just ended, begin in the United States in the 1970s on the initiative of historian Carter G. Woodson to honor the achievements of African Americans in history in a context in which they were too often forgotten. Over the decades, this sentiment has spread globally and has resonated in the United Kingdom, Canada and Ireland, all countries where the need has been felt to highlight the exploits of the forgotten black heroes who contributed in various ways to make their nation what it is today. In Italy, over the centuries, several cases of forgetfulness seem to have occurred, and today many ignore the important contribution of Afro-Italians in history and even their existence. That’s why we wanted to collaborate with the association Black History Month Florence and with the Afro-Italian visual artist Jem Perucchini to celebrate the names and faces of four extraordinary figures in our history, and the important legacy they have left us.
Josephine Margaret Bakhita (1869-1947) was a Canossian nun active in Italy for 45 years, canonized by the Catholic Church in 2000. Bakhita was born in Olgossa, western Sudan, but her childhood was abruptly interrupted when, at about eight years old, she was kidnapped by Arab slave traffickers who force her to walk barefoot for more than 900 kilometers and sell her to other merchants. For 12 years it has been bought and sold several times, undergoing such trauma that it forgets its real name. In 1883 the Turkish master sold it to the Italian vice consul Callisto Legani who welcomed her into the house and treated her with affection. When the consul is forced to return to Italy, Bakhita begs him to take her with him, and he agrees. After a long and difficult journey together with a friend of Legani, Augusto Michieli, they arrive in Genoa. Michieli takes Bakhita with her, who stays with her family for three years in Mirano, Veneto, as a nanny. At that time the Michieli still ran real estate affairs in Sudan, and often came and went from Africa. Before the last trip, they entrust Bakhita to the Canossian nuns in Venice where the young woman comes into contact with the Christian religion. On the way back they try to take her back, but Giuseppina refuses. The case is brought to the attention of the Italian authorities who deny the family’s request to claim Bakhita as their property. For the first time she is free: she chooses to be baptized and to stay with the nuns, where she continues to work for 42 years as a cook and caretaker. Many describe her as a charismatic and kind woman, called by the inhabitants of Schio the “black mother”. In 1947 she died and in 2000 she was canonized as Saint Josephine Bakhita; today she is also known as the patron saint of Sudan and as a survivor of human trafficking.
The aviator DOMENICO MONDELLI. Artwork by JEM PERUCCHINI.
© GIUSEPPE MACOR
Domenico Mondelli (1886-1974) he was the first black aviator in the world to obtain a military pilot’s license. Born in Asmara, Eritrea, like Wolde Selassie, Mondelli was brought to Italy during the Abyssinian War by the Italian colonel Attilio Mondelli who wants to adopt him. After moving to Italy, he went to school in Rome and, following in his father’s footsteps, he enrolled in the Royal Military Academy of Modena. In 1905 he obtained the patent of second lieutenant which marks the beginning of his career in the Italian army. He participated in the Italian-Libyan war and in 1913, passionate about aviation, he applied for a pilot’s license to the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. At that time many of the aviation federations avoided certifying black pilots because of the prejudice that they were unable to control their emotions. Fortunately this did not happen in Italy, therefore Domenico obtained the patent. The following year he fought in the First World War and was subsequently decorated with various medals of honor obtaining great successes, including promotion to lieutenant colonel and the title of Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy. This series of triumphs was interrupted by the advent of fascism. He was denied the rank of colonel because a black man could not give orders to a white Italian. Domenico takes legal action against the Ministry of War and the then Prime Minister Benito Mussolini, and despite winning every time in court, he is never granted the grade. Despite this, he continued his military career as a reserve and after the fall of fascism he obtained a promotion to general of the army guilds and, in 1970, the title of Grand Officer of the Order to the merit of the Italian Republic. Four years later he died in a hospital in Rome, leaving his legacy as a highly prestigious Italian soldier and aviator.
The partisan ALESSANDRO SINIGAGLIA. Artwork by JEM PERUCCHINI.
© GIUSEPPE MACOR
Alessandro Sinigaglia (1902-1944) is the name of a communist Jewish partisan who fought against fascism. Born and raised in Fiesole, Florence, to an Italian Jewish father and an African American mother, Sinigaglia does military service abroad, in the Royal Navy. In 1924 he returned to Fiesole where he joined the Communist Party of Italy, outlawed by the fascist regime two years later. To avoid arrest, he leaves the country in 1928, flees to France and the Soviet Union, where he works as a mechanic while attending a party school. After becoming a fervent Leninist, he moved to Switzerland where he organized relief efforts for Italian communists who had fled Italy. In 1939 he returned to France, was arrested and handed over to the Italian fascist authorities who confined him to a concentration camp in Ventotene. At the fall of fascism, in 1943, he was released, but only six months later he was killed in Florence. To honor his memory, an Italian military brigade is named after him, and the Florentine Resistance places a plaque in the place where he was executed which reads: “Here on 13 February 1944 the heroic partisan commander Alessandro Sinigaglia, silver medal, was killed by the Nazis to military valor “.
The boxer LEONE JACOVACCI. Artwork by JEM PERUCCHINI.
© GIUSEPPE MACOR
Leone Jacovacci (1902-1983) was a famous boxer and an Italian and European champion in the late 1920s. Born in Sanza Pombo, today in Angola, from a Congolese mother and an Italian father, he was brought to Italy as a child and raised by his grandparents in Rome. Here, to escape racial prejudice, at 16 he embarks for London, under the pseudonym of John Douglas Walker. After a few years he enlisted in the British army and when he was discharged he began to become passionate about amateur boxing. After a defeat he moved to France, in 1921, where he made a series of 25 consecutive victories. The following year he returned to Italy to compete against the Italian middleweight champion, but in 1925 he confessed his true identity as an Italian, causing a series of complications with the government, at the time controlled by the Fascist National Party. Despite the difficulties he continues to fight in the ring, admired by a large audience for defeating almost all the boxers he faces. In July 1928 he was finally allowed to meet the national and European champion, Mario Bosisio. Jacovacci wins and earns the titles of national and European middleweight champion, but his victory is questioned by the press and senior government officials who reject the idea that a black man represents Italy in the world. In the end, despite the victory, the match ends in a draw. Shortly afterwards Jacovacci suffered a serious eye injury and moved to France. Returning to Italy in 1944, he worked for the United Nations assisting refugees. He died in Milan in 1983, but his legacy as one of the greatest Italian boxers of all time always remains alive.
This project was made possible thanks to the support of Gucci.
Opening: the Canossian nun GIUSEPPINA BAKHITA. Artwork by JEM PERUCCHINI.
From Vogue Italia, n. 835, March 2020
The birth of Black History Month celebrations initially began in the United States during the 1970’s founded by historian Carter G. Woodson as a way for Americans to honor the accomplishments of Black Americans through history in a world where they had been so easily forgotten. Throughout the decades, this sentiment has spread globally, striking the chords of populace in the UK, Canada and Ireland who have all felt the need to highlight the black unsung heroes who have in various ways contributed in shaping parts of their nation into what it is today. Locally, within the Italian society, similar cases of erasure seem to have occurred across centuries, with many in today’s world unaware of the existence and contributions of Afro-Italians throughout the past, This is why on this occasion, we have partnered with Black History Month Florence and Afro-Italian visual artist Jem Perucchini to honor the names and faces of four Afro-Italian gems throughout history & the legacies which they have left behind.
Josephine Margaret Bakhita (1869-1947) was an active Canossian religious sister in Italy for 45 years who was declared a saint by the Catholic Church in 2000. Her story began in her home town of Olgossa in Western Sudan, where she grew up happily in a loving family among brothers and sisters. Her childhood was cut short at around age eight when she was kidnapped by Arab slave traders who forced her to walk around 600 miles barefoot and sold her to several slave owners. For the next 12 years she was bought and sold as a slave and she underwent so much physical and emotional trauma that it caused her to eventually forget her original name. In 1883, her Turkish slave master sold her to Italian Vice Consul Callisto Legani who treated her with much kindness. When it was time for him to return to Italy, Bakhita begged to be taken with him and he obliged. Following a long and dangerous trip across Sudan, the Red Sea and the Mediterranean with Legani’s friend Augusto Michieli, they finally arrived in Genoa, Italy. Michieli and his family were then given ownership of Bakhita as a gift from Legnani. She lived with the family for three years in Mirano, Veneto where she worked as a nanny for their daughter. At this time the family still had real estate businesses in Sudan and would often travel back and forth. The last time they left, they placed Bakhita in the care of the Canossian Sisters in Venice where she discovered Christianity for the first time. Upon their return, they attempted to take their nanny back from the sisters but Josephine refused for three days. The case was soon brought to Italian authorities who denied the family’s request to claim Josephine Bakhita as their property. For the first time in a long time, she found herself to be free, and she chose to be baptized and remain with the sisters, where she continued to work for 42 years as a cook and a doorkeeper. She was known by many as charismatic and kind, and was often referred to as the “black mother” or protecter by the people in her village of Schio, especially during the period of World War ll. In 1947, she died, and a few years after she was given several titles that lead up to her being declared Saint Josephine Bakhita in 2000, and today she’s also know as the patron saint of Sudan and human trafficking survivors.
Domenico Mondelli (1886-1974) was the first black aviator in the world to obtain a military pilot license. Born in Asmara, Eritrea under the name Wolde Selassie, Domenico Mondelli was brought to Italy by an Italian Colonel named Attilio Mondelli who intended to adopt him during the course of the Abyssinian War. After moving to Italy as a teenager, he attended school in Rome, and following his father’s footsteps soon enrolled in the Royal Military Academy of Modena. In 1905, upon his completion of the course, Mondelli was awarded the patent of Second Lieutenant which officially launched his tenure in the Italian military. He participated in the Italian-Libyan war and in 1913 he decided to explore his passion for aviation and requested his pilot license from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale. During this time, many international aviation federations were avoiding certifying black pilots under the prejudice assumption that they were not able to control their emotions, but thankfully this was not the case in Italy and Domenico was able to successfully obtain his license. A year later he fought as a pilot captain in World War l and then went on to earn several medals of honor and victories throughout the years including his promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and his title as Knight of the Order of the Crown of Italy. Mondelli’s life was filled with success to the point where he even joined the Freemasonry. This streak of well-deserved triumph was cut short during the reign of Fascism. In an attempt to obtain his ranking as a Colonel – the highest ranking senior military officer – the serviceman was denied under the presumed logic that a black man could not give orders to a white Italian. After several attempts, Domenico took legal action against the Ministry of War and against the then Prime Minister Benito Mussolini and each time he won the case but was never given his ranking as Colonel but instead put on several hiatuses in hopes he would eventually give up the fight. Nonetheless, Mondelli continued his career in the military in the role of the reserve and following the fall of fascism was awarded several merits including a promotion to an Army Corporate General and eventually the Officer of the Order of Merit of The Italian Republic – the highest of orders of the Italian republic – in 1970. Four years later Mondelli passed away at a hospital in Rome leaving behind his legacy as a prominent, highly decorated Italian soldier and aviator.
Alessandro Sinigaglia (1902-1944) was the name of a Jewish communist partisan who fought against fascism in the early 1900s. He was born & raised in Fiesole, Italy by a Jewish Italian father and an African-American mother. Sinigaglia, like his father, was a trained mechanic who also completed military service abroad in the Royal Italian Navy. In 1924 he returned to his hometown of Fiesole where he joined the Communist Party of Italy which was soon outlawed by the Fascist Regime two years later. To avoid arrests, he left Italy in 1928 where he then traveled to France and eventually to the Soviet Union where he worked as a mechanic while attending political school. After becoming a convinced Leninist, he moved to Switzerland on behalf of the party where he organized rescues for Italian communists who had escaped from Italy. In 1939, he continued his European escapade to France where he was eventually arrested and handed over to the Fascist Italian authorities who detained him in a concentration camp on Ventotene, which was an Italian island where many other influential anti-fascists were held. Upon the fall of fascism in 1943, the Jewish partisan was freed but was killed only six months after in Florence. In honor of his memory, an Italian military brigade was formed and named after him and a plaque was erected by the Florentine Resistance outside the place where he was executed. The plaque reads, “here on the 13th of February 1944 died, massacred by the Nazi’s, the heroic partisan commander Alessandro Sinigaglia, silver medal holder for military valor.”
Leone Jacovacci (1902-1983) was a renowned boxer and an Italian and European middle weight champion of the late 1920’s. He was born in Sanza Pombo, Angola from the union of a Congolese mother and an Italian father, and was brought to Italy at an early age where he was raised by his grandparents in Rome. As a young black boy in Rome, Jacovacci experienced episodes of racial prejudice, and as an attempt to escape this environment he went to London at age 16 where he operated under the pseudonym John Douglas Walker. After a few years, he enrolled in the British Army and upon his discharge, he explored the world of amateur boxing in London. He initially started out successfully, but after one particular defeat he decided to move to France in 1921 where he had a streak of 25 consecutive victories. A year later he returned to Italy, still under the pseudonym John Walker, to compete against the Italian middle weight champion, but after some time he eventually confessed his actual identity as being Italian in 1925 which presented complications with the government which was at the time controlled by the National Fascist Party. Despite this setback, he continued to fight. At this time, boxing was one of the most popular sports in Italy and Jacovacci was admired by many for defeating almost every boxer he faced. In July 1928, he finally was allowed to face the reigning national and European champion Mario Bosisio in Rome. He won the match and earned the titles of Italian and European middleweight champion but his victory was questioned by the media and high-ranking government officials who were not in agreement with the sentiment of a man of black race representing the country on an international scale. This resulted in the results of the match being recognized by many as tied. Shortly after his famous fight, Jacovacci suffered a major injury to the eye and not long after moved to France where he lived for a few years with his female companion and daughter. He eventually returned to Italy in 1944 after World War ll, where he worked with the United Nations assisting refugees. In 1983 he died in Milan of a heart disease, but his legacy lives on as one of Italy’s greatest boxers of all time.
A great volume of the information like this on black Italian figures was recovered by the late Italian sociologist and psychotherapist Mauro Valeri who passed away late last year. Like research is carried out by the Black History Month Florence initiative which puts on an annual month long roster of events in celebration of black influence throughout Italian history. Being cognizant and understanding the presence of black influence throughout history is not only about the celebration of an overlooked minority group but also calls for a cogitation on what it means to be Italian. It is both a reflection on the personal legacies of these indispensable figures and furthermore, the nation’s story at large.
This project was made possible thanks to the support of Gucci.