The decision to honour the founder of the AS Roma football club on a postage stamp has caused a furore in Italy due to his Fascist past.

The stamp issued on Thursday bears the face of Italo Foschi, a Fascist militia leader who was accused of persecuting Jewish people.

The legacy of Fascism, to which many Italians have an ambiguous attitude, has faced renewed debate since the 2022 election of Giorgia Meloni, Italy's first far-right prime minister.

And the decision to honour Roma's founding president has caused bewilderment, coming at the same time as another stamp honouring a Socialist MP assassinated 100 years ago by Fascist hitmen -- one of whom was praised by Foschi.

La Stampa daily reported that the idea to commemorate Foschi came from an undersecretary in Italy's industry ministry who is a member of the far-right Brothers of Italy party headed by Meloni.

The choice set off a wave of incredulity within the opposition. 

Foschi was the "author of brutal crimes against political opponents and of ruthless persecutions against Jews," wrote two MPs from the opposition Democratic Party, Francesco Verducci and Dario Parrini, calling the choice "offensive and shameful".

Another, Michele Fina, said it represented a "continuous regurgitation of clearly Fascist impulses" by Meloni's government, which is Italy's most right-wing since the end of World War Two.

Italian newspapers seized on the irony, given that the post office is due on Monday to issue another stamp to honour Giacomo Matteotti, a Socialist MP abducted in broad daylight and killed by Fascists in 1924.

Following Matteotti's death, Foschi wrote to one of Matteotti's killers, Amerigo Dumini -- a member of the violent Fascist paramilitary squads whose beatings, murders and raids on property in the early 1920s helped consolidate Mussolini's power -- telling him "You are a hero".

"Welcome to Italy's Pantheon", ironised La Stampa.

A member of the industry ministry's advisory committee that selects personalities worthy of appearing on stamps protested that the committee was not told about the choice of Foschi. 

"We find his name on the list of those responsible for the anti-Jewish persecution in Veneto," Carlo Giovanardi wrote on Wednesday on the Il Riformista website. 

Contacted by AFP, an industry ministry spokesman said: "The celebration is only about sports. There is no other connotation, much less political."

Born in 1884, Foschi was active in the Italian National Association before it merged with the National Fascist Party (PNF) in 1923. 

He rose through the ranks in the Lazio section active in Rome and made a name for himself by taking part in violent actions against Mussolini's opponents.

As general secretary of the Roman PNF federation, Foschi organised the merger of three football clubs in the capital, giving birth to Roma in 1927 and becoming their first president.

Not anti-Fascist

To mark the 140th anniversary of Foschi's birth, Roma -- whose website makes no mention of Foschi's political past -- organised the third edition of the "Italo Foschi Trophy", a match between two youth teams. 

Foschi died of a heart attack in 1949 while attending a football match.

Meloni paid tribute to Matteotti last week, describing him as "a free and courageous man killed by fascist squad members for his ideas".

Some observers found the comments surprising coming from Meloni, who as a 19-year-old activist in 1996 told a television reporter that "Mussolini was a good politician... everything he did, he did for Italy". 

Since coming to power in October 2022, however, Meloni has sought to downplay the post-Fascist origins of Brothers of Italy, which grew from the Italian Social Movement (MSI) formed after the war by supporters of Mussolini.

Meloni has played a delicate balancing act, trying to broaden her electorate and win new respectability on the international stage, without cutting herself off from the more radical fringes of her party.

Paolo Borioni, a professor of political science at Rome's La Sapienza university, told AFP that Meloni's challenge was to project "signs of a non-Fascist but not anti-Fascist democracy."