In one image, he was a new relative in the Huxtable family from “The Cosby Show.” In another, his face was superimposed on the body of Michael Jordan as he glided to the rim. In another, he was placed in a scene from a classic Italian film in which the actor Totò, wearing blackface, plays an ambassador from a fictional African country.
When Luigi Di Maio, Italy’s foreign minister, returned to Rome from a vacation on the island of Sardinia, it took little time for Italians to notice his deep tan. By Aug. 25, images and memes featuring Mr. Di Maio in a form of blackface appeared across the Italian web. One of these instances depicted Mr. Di Maio as a Black migrant on a crowded boat.
Instead of criticizing the images, Mr. Di Maio embraced them, sharing some on his own Instagram account, including the ones of Mr. Jordan, Totò and the Huxtables.
“Guys. I promise that next summer I will put on 50 SPF sunscreen,” Mr. Di Maio wrote in a caption under the images. “And thanks for making my day lighter.”
In the United States, racked by questions of systemic racism, some public figures who have been caught in blackface have been forced to resign or have been fired. The practice has also become taboo in most of Europe, where it is, at the very least, considered highly offensive.
But perhaps less so in Italy, where performers still appear on television in blackface to play notable figures such as Louis Armstrong or Beyoncé.
Last year, the Italian airline Alitalia pulled an advertisement that featured an actor wearing blackface to portray former President Barack Obama. In 2008, Italy’s former prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, called President Obama, “young, handsome and tanned.” When he was chastised for it, Mr. Berlusconi said it was a compliment and that people needed to stop being so uptight.
Representatives for Mr. Di Maio, a power broker in Italy’s governing Five Star Movement, made a similar argument.
“The minister has been categorically against any form of racial discrimination or violence in any of its forms,” said Augusto Rubei, Mr. Di Maio’s spokesman. “It was a self-mocking post about the tan the minister got after a few days in Sardinia. Blackface is not something that is understood in Italy,” he said, adding that Italian culture did not have the same sensitivities as other countries.
Still, the photos posted by Mr. Di Maio, who has a reputation for gaffes, did not go without criticism in the country. Some argued that they reflected Mr. Di Maio’s provincial worldview, one that does not take into consideration global conversations around racism happening outside Italy. Others said the images ignored the discrimination faced by Black people in Italy, where African migrants often grapple with violence and intolerance.
Igiaba Scego, a Somali-Italian writer who focuses on Black studies and colonialism, said Italy has never faced its colonial and fascist past.
“In other countries, they know that practices such as blackface lead to violence,” she said. “In Italy, they just don’t take insults to Black people seriously.”
Rather than finding the posts hurtful and shocking, “the minister found it funny,” she added.
Mr. Rubei, the spokesman, also defended the minister’s cameo next to Totò, the Italian actor, by saying he did it because both men are originally from Naples, and that no one in Italy associated that performance, from the 1961 film “Totòtruffa,” with racism, or “thinks Totò is wearing blackface.”
In other words, he said, people were making something out of nothing.
“He did not paint his face black,” Mr. Rubei said of Mr. Di Maio. “He was really tanned.”