CNN  — 

An Italian football anti-racism initiative featuring paintings of monkeys has received widespread criticism after its release Monday.

The sport in Italy has been blighted by racist abuse this season, and the artwork commissioned by Serie A was designed to stop fans directing monkey chants at players.

Artist Simone Fugazzotto came up with the idea for the Coppa Italia final between Lazio and Atalanta in May – and it’s part of an official anti-racism initiative that was officially unveiled on Monday.

Fugazzotto said his triptych of monkeys was intended to show that there’s no difference between humans and apes, an idea that he decided to use after watching a match between Inter Milan and Napoli.

“Everyone was making the sound of monkeys at Koulibaly, a player I respect,” Fugazzotto told the Serie A website, referring to Napoli’s Senegalese international Kalidou Koulibaly.

“I’ve always been painting monkeys for five to six years, so I thought I’d make this work to teach that we’re all apes.

“So I made the western monkey – white with blue eyes – the Asian monkey – with almond eyes – and the black monkey in the middle, which is where everything comes from, this is what the evolutionary theory tells us,” Fugazzotto told reporters.

“The monkey becomes the spark to teach everyone that there is no difference. It’s not that one is man and one is monkey. At this point, we are all monkeys … if they really feel the need to tell a black (player) that he is one.”

Artist Simone Fugazzotto said his work was inspired by the racist abuse directed at Napoli's Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly in an Italian soccer game.

READ: Racist and homophobic incidents tarnish ‘best league in the world’


Reaction to the artwork has been overwhelmingly negative.

“These creations are an outrage, they wil be counter-productive and continue the dehumanisation of people of African heritage,” said anti-discrimination organization Fare on its Twitter feed.

“It is difficult to see what Serie A was thinking, who did they consult? It is time for the progressive clubs in the league to make their voice heard.”

Former England international Stan Collymore tweeted: Fantastic to see Serie A anti racism campaign posters ( yes, it’s really real).

“Maybe get the mascots to Black up as a finishing touch.”

Meanwhile soccer agent Jen Mendelewitsch tweeted: “Serie A ‘No to Racism’ campaign. Please tell me this is a joke.”

Chris Smalling of AS Roma embraces Romelu Lukaku of FC Internazionale. Smalling and Lukaku played for Manchester United last season.

In an email sent to CNN, Fugazzotto said he had been left “completely shocked” by the reaction, and questioned why when he had presented the artwork in May it “didn’t even give rise to a word.”

The artist added: “To understand this work, you need to enter into my world and see the monkey as the protagonist of my artwork over years, and as a metaphor of the human being.

“Over the years, I painted almost every virtue, weakness and madness of the human being through the form of the chimpanzee, which allows me to express the soul of the human being though the looks but ridiculing the habits, the tics and the unhealthy habits.”

Serie A did not immediately responded to CNN’s request for comment regarding the negative reception on social media.

On the Serie A website, the league’s managing director general manager Luigi De Siervo said Italian football’s top flight division was adopting a three-pronged approach to combat racism.

All 20 Serie A clubs had signed a charter of principles against racism, stadium security would be improved – notably by using facial recognition software to identify racist fans – and the cultural initiative that Fugazzotto was part of.

‘Tone deaf’

Earlier this month Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport was widely criticized for previewing a soccer game with the headline “Black Friday.”

corriere dello sport cover

READ: ‘Black Friday’: Italian newspaper sparks race row with front page

The banner was accompanied by photographs of former Manchester United teammates Chris Smalling and Romelu Lukaku, who play for AS Roma and Inter Milan respectively.

“Tone deaf, ignorant and with the usual racial undertones. Saying I’m shocked would be a lie at this point,” tweeted football journalist Matteo Bonetti.

Earlier this season, Lukaku was the subject of monkey chants from Cagliari fans and Brescia striker Mario Balotelli said he had experienced racial abuse by opposition Verona fans.

Both incidents were met with meager penalties – Verona was handed a one-match partial stadium closure and Cagliari escaped any serious punishment.