A museum’s squeamishness about the enduring political legacy of the violence it seeks to commemorate undermines its desire to avoid the “errors of the past.”

On December 12, 1969, a bomb exploded in the Banco Nazionale dell’Agricoltura in the Italian city of Milan. Killing 17 and injuring over 80, the massacre at Piazza Fontana was the opening salvo in what would become known as the anni di piombo, Italy’s “years of lead.” For the next two decades, clandestine far-left groups, such as the Brigate Rosse, waged war against the state through kidnapping and targeted assassination. Meanwhile, neofascist cells, often with the knowledge of the Italian authorities, sowed terror through massacres like that at Piazza Fontana. Over 350 people would be killed across Italy, including the ex-prime minister, Aldo Moro. Over 100 of these deaths would be in Milan.

The city of Milan’s new “diffuse urban museum” is an attempt to reckon with the violence of the years of lead, to trace the geographies of what the journalist Enrico Deaglio called “the bombs that changed Italy.” Combining digital maps and documentation with physical markers and historical trails, Milano, Le stragi e il terrorismo (Milan, massacres and terrorism) — a work still in progress — pursues the cartographies of political violence across the city. It takes us to Piazza Fontana, where plaques tell the story of the fascist massacre; to the police station, where, in 1973, another fascist killed four with a grenade; and, ultimately, to tens of other sites, paying homage to the activists, magistrates, policemen, journalists, and civilians who fell victim to violence.

As such, the project is both museum and memorial, history and commemoration. Played out across the city’s physical environment, the museum wants the past to speak to the present. Placed literally in the streets, it seeks to pull you through lived-in spaces whose mutability challenges the static “exhibit.” As its authors declare, the project is a palimpsest, where temporalities are read through each other across actual space. In today’s pristine Piazza Fontana, you encounter the spectre of past violence. Through contemporary middle-class neighborhoods, you trace the fault lines of past political loyalties. In the city’s current form, you are invited to “to see to understand and not to forget” a past Milan.

Developed in part by Milan’s Casa della Memoria, and part of the project known as Milano è memoria (Milan is memory), the concept of memory is fundamental here. Yet, the mobilization of memory is never politically innocent; it always raises the question of “who wants whom to remember what, and why,” as the Israeli historian, Alon Confino, has written. Milan’s museum is perfectly frank about this. “Memory is the strongest instrument we have to avoid the errors of the past and strengthen the common fabric and shared values of the city,” the Milano è memoria website claims.

Milan’s Casa della Memoria, a museum that houses the Associazione Italiana Vittime del Terrorismo (Italian Association for Victims of Terrorism) and the Associazione Piazza Fontana (2021) (photo by Giulia Vidori)

It’s a political project, then, though it doesn’t admit it. Confrontation with the past enables us to heal in the present, it claims. Remembrance enables reconciliation between victims and perpetrators, between far left and extreme right, between communities whose own memories have long been fiercely opposed. In this way, “shared values” are the supposed victor.

Yet, it’s important to notice what isn’t officially remembered, particularly of those events in which the state is thought to have played a role. In Piazza Fontana, for example, civil society groups once erected a memorial to Giuseppe Pinelli, the anarchist rail worker falsely accused of the December 12 bombing. While held in custody in police headquarters, he mysteriously “fell” from an upstairs window. Many assume he was murdered. His memorial, with an epitaph originally reading “killed innocently,” was replaced by the city council after it was destroyed by neofascists. But now it reads “died tragically,” erasing police responsibility. While police make up large numbers of those commemorated in the museum, those who died by their hands — Pinelli, or the students Saverio Saltarelli and Roberto Franceschi, both murdered at demonstrations in the early ‘70s — are not recognized. Meanwhile, the state’s involvement in the bombing itself isn’t mentioned at all.

Similarly, while dispersing its exhibits across the living terrain of the city, the museum ignores the sites of community memory that exist already. Far from Pinelli’s memorial, a mural is still maintained in honor of Fausto and Iaio, two teenage activists killed by fascists in 1978. Meanwhile, every year, neo-Nazis commemorate with Roman salutes the murder of Sergio Ramelli, a member of the youth group of the Movimento Sociale Italiano (MSI), post-war fascism’s representatives in parliament. The museum ignores these marks and, by doing so, sidesteps the problem of the politics of the present.

As the Italian semiologist, Valentina Pisanty, has recently argued in The Guardians of Memory, commemorative exclamations of ‘never forget! never again!’ are not enough to stop the spread of fascist politics today — or to encourage any embrace of “shared values.” In fact, in Italy, institutional fascism is closer to power than it has been since the Second World War, with Fratelli d’Italia, a party descended from the MSI — associates of which were often implicated in the violence of the years of lead — polling as Italy’s largest party. Only last week, a local politician for the far-right party, Lega, shot and killed a Moroccan man in the street an hour south of Milan, the latest crime in a continued history of fascist violence.

If it seeks to help us “avoid the errors of the past,” more will be needed from this museum. The bombs of the years of lead changed Italy forever, yes. Yet, the building of a shared social fabric must start from a practice of remembrance that’s brave enough to recognize what hasn’t changed. Fascist violence isn’t in the past, and a museum that honestly confronts the reality of political violence must engage with its stain on the present. A diffuse urban museum that recognizes the city’s living memories and politics offers the perfect tool to do just that.

Charlie Jarvis is a writer based in Milan. His work focuses on politics, culture, and the city.