The newspaper L'Adula, founded by Teresa Bontempi, was banned by the Federal Council in 1935.
The newspaper L'Adula, founded by Teresa Bontempi, was banned by the Federal Council in 1935. Swiss Federal Archives

Between Montessori and fascism

Teresa Bontempi helped shape the history of Ticino at the beginning of the 20th century, first as a teacher, and later as an advocate of fascism. She was a woman with two faces.

Raphael Rues

Raphael Rues

Raphael Rues is a historian and specialises in Ticino and the German-fascist presence in Northern Italy.

At the end of the 19th century, the economic situation in Switzerland’s south was very tough. Numerous Ticino banks, such as the Banca Cantonale Ticinese, went bankrupt. The canton’s level of public debt rose from 13 million francs in 1900 to 43 million 25 years later. That would be more than 200 million francs today. Relations with the German-speaking part of Switzerland were tense during these years. The still new Gotthard railway brought scores of people from the north to Ticino, sparking fears of German speakers outnumbering Italian speakers. This negative feeling was heightened by the difficult economic situation. An inferiority complex developed towards German-speaking Switzerland. Increasingly, attempts were made in Ticino to put a spanner in the works of their compatriots on the other side of the Gotthard. A good example of this is the story of the young Benito Mussolini. The Italian revolutionary and draft-dodger was arrested in Geneva in 1904 for falsifying his papers, and expelled – for the second time since entering Switzerland in 1902. But the Ticino government took a different view, and released him again in Bellinzona. A ‘two fingers up’ at the rest of Switzerland.
Geneva police photograph of 21-year-old Benito Mussolini, 1904.
Geneva police photograph of 21-year-old Benito Mussolini, 1904. Swiss Federal Archives
Born in 1883, Teresa Bontempi grew up in these politically and economically troubled times. Her family was originally from Italy, but had lived in Bellinzona for a long time. Her father, Giacomo, was a teacher, inspector and general secretary of the Ticino department of education. He was one of the promoters of the cantonal Scuola di Commercio in Bellinzona, and had also had close links with Italy for many years – so much so that in 1908 Giacomo Bontempi, together with other prominent Ticino intellectuals, called for the establishment of a branch of the Dante Alighieri society in Ticino, to protect and disseminate Italian language and culture. In the Bontempi family there was a strong aversion to the presence of other cultures, especially those from German-speaking Switzerland.

Aggressive rhetoric against the Swiss Confederation

Like her father, Teresa Bontempi also became a teacher. After graduating in 1901, she taught in various institutions and attended courses at the universities of Freiburg, Rome and Milan. In the capital of Lombardy, the young woman from Ticino met and became a follower of Maria Montessori. When Teresa Bontempi became cantonal kindergarten inspector in 1907, she introduced Maria Montessori’s ideas throughout virtually the whole Ticino region. At the same time she campaigned for Italian culture, and in 1912 she and Rosa Colombi founded the weekly newspaper L’Adula. The paper was financed with fascist capital and had a very large readership, mainly in Italy. In the articles they printed, cultural concerns increasingly mixed with political statements and a growing spirit of irredentism.
Maria Montessori, photographed in 1913.
Maria Montessori, photographed in 1913. Wikimedia
The tenor of the articles in L’Adula was often aggressive and contemptuous towards the Swiss Confederation. For example, army officers such as Colonel Raimondo Rossi and the federal capital of Bern were insulted and verbally challenged. In the pressure cooker atmosphere of the early 20th century, that was playing with fire. And this fire ran rampant in southern Switzerland: during World War I, scores of Ticino inhabitants voluntarily fought for Italy. Under these circumstances a tide of irredentist sentiment washed across the region, with the aim of breaking Ticino away from the Confederation in order to join Italy. For Teresa Bontempi, the dichotomy between Montessori educational theory and a fascist ideology became ever greater. During the 1920s, the press launched head-on attacks on the cantonal kindergarten inspector on a number of occasions for her anti-patriotic attitude. She was even suspended from her job for a year, but was then reinstated. L’Adula was by now considered an unequivocally pro-fascist newspaper. The fact that co-editor Rosa Colombi was now married to the fascist Piero Parini did nothing to soften this impression either. Parini, an Italian, built a career under Mussolini and from 1941 onwards governed the Ionian Islands, which were occupied by Italy. There, he behaved like a dictator and did whatever he wanted.
Portrait of Teresa Bontempi.
Portrait of Teresa Bontempi. Associazione Archivi Riuniti delle Donne Ticinesi

Prohibition and conviction

And so the inevitable happened. In 1935, Teresa Bontempi was arrested for high treason and sentenced to four months in prison. Her newspaper was banned by the Federal Council – after 24 years. She then moved to Italy and didn’t return to Ticino until after the end of World War II. She died there in 1968, alone in a home for the elderly. Even before her arrest, the political climate in southern Switzerland had changed. With the assassination of the Social Democrat Giacomo Matteotti in 1924, it became increasingly apparent that Italy and fascism posed a serious threat. For Ticino as well. People started to turn away from irredentism, finally culminating years later in a major aid campaign for the Partisan Republic of Ossola. Politically, Teresa Bontempi had manoeuvred continuously on the sidelines. Professionally, with her dissemination of Montessori educational theory, she had moved childhood education a long way forward in Ticino and in Switzerland. But the shadow of fascism that has always hung over her meant she was not recognised for this achievement for a long time.

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