My grandfather bore a striking resemblance to Benito Mussolini in physique and temperament. The apartment building my grandfather built in Rome in the early 1960s where my family spent its summers is in the rationalist district of Rome that il Duce had built as the failed “universal exhibition” of 1942. I eventually realized how suitable this part of the city was for someone like my grandfather. I will never forget staying there as a six-year-old, and my grandfather taking my brothers and me out for breakfast. I remember my delight at being served scarlet, freshly-squeezed blood orange juice for the first time. And breakfast is indeed a good starting point for a tour through Montreal’s Little Italy, which should begin at Caffe’ Italia.
Caffe’ Italia does not belong to the local landscape, although it has been around long enough to seem autochthonous. Post-war immigrants carried over its atmosphere of shabby conviviality and liquid languor from Italy. Just as we live surrounded by the vestiges of past eras, we can inhabit cultural zones divided by vast oceans all on the same street: to the urban miracle of time travel we can add that of bilocation.
But back to breakfast—there are few pleasures as great as sitting on a stool at the bar of Caffe’ Italia, enjoying coffee-stained steamed milk and a tall, golden slice of pandoro. With its terrazzo floor, Ferrari and soccer posters, and the regular nasal rumble and hiss of the espresso machine, there is no reason to insist that you are still in Canada. An old clock with an illuminated picture of Sophia Loren in a bra and the holy cards above the bar add the crucial decorative details. As if this really were the typical village bar-cum-corner store rather than an urban hangout, cologne, Jasperware-blue bottles of talcum, effervescent digestive powders, cigarettes, and a jarringly unexpected assortment of pharmaceuticals and other products are stocked behind the bar next to stacked glasses and tall cakes. After you have picked up on some of the gossip wafting from the tables of garrulous old men and sated your appetite, you can go on to the other sights of the neighbourhood.
About two blocks east of Caffe’ Italia on Dante Street, in the middle of a verdant square, a bust of the poet himself, holding the Comedy to his heart with both hands, aloofly gazes out from a stone stele decorated with bronze books and laurels, a monument erected by the “Italian colony” of Montreal. Inscribed beneath the bust is this quotation from Purgatorio XXII: “Dopo sé fa le persone dotte.” Statius says this to Virgil, who he claims “did as he who goes by night and carries / the lamp behind him—he is of no help / to his own self but teaches those who follow,” an apt allusion to immigrants’ self-sacrifice for their descendants (Mandelbaum). This statue reminds me of a bookish great uncle I never met, nicknamed Dante. According to family legend, surrounded by fellow immigrants with little education who were incapable of understanding him, or what to them was a strange love of reading, he hanged himself.
Facing the square stands the solid mass of the Church of our Lady of Defence (Chiesa della Madonna della Difesa), the church that has continuously served the oldest Italian community in Canada. Named after a shrine in central Italy, the present church was built in 1919, but its remarkable ornamentation was completed throughout the next three decades. Even though we do not live within the confines of the parish, Madonna della Difesa is nevertheless the church of record my family attends for all personally significant religious occasions; our weddings and baptisms all take place there. Although always impressed by its opulent decoration, in my youthful myopia I never suspected that the disapproved wedding of my Italian father to my non-Italian, Slovenian mother was not the most dramatic event associated with this church.
Designed and decorated by Tuscan artist Guido Nincheri, the church is in the shape of a Greek cross, with an appearance of Constantinopolitan solidity. The church’s striated exterior evokes the Romanesque and the Byzantine, and yet the building is unmistakably the product of a newly industrialized society, its red bricks suggesting the nearby factories where so many members of its congregation were employed. Eschewing the prevalent basilica model, Nincheri created a relatively square church with a large central cupola and a monumental apsidal hemicycle, all painted in exuberant colours by the designer himself. Nincheri managed to blend Renaissance fresco technique with a certain contemporary aesthetic sensibility to produce an original synthesis: the flapper Madonna. If you ever wanted to know what the Blessed Virgin, angels, and saints would look like as Fitzgerald heroines or silent film stars, Nincheri has defined the model.
Classically trained at Florence’s Academy, Nincheri brought his talent for true fresco to Canada (painting on damp plaster rather than on a dry wall), where his murals and cupola paintings remain in excellent condition. When the federal government gave the church a grant to clean and restore the frescos a few years ago, a nationally reported controversy arose due to one person painted into the apse: Benito Mussolini, sitting on a horse and surrounded by his high officials. Painted from 1927 to 1933, this part of the apse fresco was meant to celebrate the signing of the Lateran Accords between the Italian government and the Vatican. During the Second World War, Mussolini’s depiction was covered, and Nincheri himself was sent to Camp Petawawa, where Italian “enemy aliens” were imprisoned for the duration of the hostilities. He was released only after his wife showed authorities design sketches that demonstrated, as his family claimed, that he had never intended to paint the fascist leader, but that he was compelled to do so by his patrons.
To the south of the church lies the great Jean-Talon Market. Named after a colonial governor of New France, it is a large farmers’ market that supplies all manner of fine comestibles to those with a discerning palate. Blinded by acrid barbeque smoke in the summer sun, surrounded by stalls overflowing with vividly coloured fruits and vegetables, there is nothing like getting a freshly grilled sausage on a bun from the saucissier, followed by a cup of gelato. My grandmother tells me stories of buying live chickens here at the market and taking them home on the bus (with difficulty, as they would often get free and run around the moving vehicle).
With lunch out of the way, you can walk just a block east to the Casa d’Italia, the community centre built in the 1930s. With its rounded corners and streamlined design, this building is a fine example of Art Deco. With its blackened brown bricks, this building never seemed more than an aging first attempt at community solidarity. And yet in the Casa d’Italia’s vestibule there is a large marble plaque recessed into the wall, which reads: “Love of [their] faraway land, pride of [their] race, a decisive will to succeed, inspired the Italian collectivity in the construction of this House of Italy, solemnly inaugurated 1 November 1936 XV E.F., first year of the re-established Empire.” The seemingly innocuous, if unconventional, postscript to the date in the inscription means “fifteenth year of the fascist era” (E.F. for era fascista). Further inside the building, a large fasces has been inscribed in the floor in black tiles. My grandfather was a supporter of this community centre and of many other community initiatives.
Perhaps a little tired of playing the tourist, you can walk back west along Jean-Talon Street and swoop back up Saint-Laurent Boulevard for rest and refreshment at Caffe’ Italia. The little bottles of bitters are delicious and thirst-quenching, but I would have a spremuta d’arancia, a glass of orange juice that never fails to take me back to my childhood. My grandfather died last November, but I suspect that he will linger like Mussolini. As I said, being here now means being then and now and here and there.