"Once again Italian football leaves the world speechless," one campaign group said, describing the paintings as a "sick joke."
With players being racially abused by fans, newspapers printing insensitive headlines, and pundits using bigoted language, Italian soccer officials acknowledged this week that something needed to be done about endemic racism in their sport.
However, the campaign that launched Monday has been widely condemned itself as exactly the type of tone-deaf approach that has blighted the game in Italy and beyond.
To launch the anti-racism campaign, the country's elite league, Serie A, commissioned three paintings of primates to be installed in the entrance of its main hall in Milan.
The artist, Simone Fugazzotto, said the idea came from seeing the Senegalese defender Kalidou Koulibaly subjected to monkey chants — a common example of the racist abuse hurled at players from the bleachers.
"I decided to portray monkeys to talk about racism because they are a metaphor for human beings," Fugazzotto said in a statement released by the league. "There is no man or monkey, we are all alike. If anything we are all monkeys."
The artist said each one of the paintings represented a different race: "The western monkey with blue and white eyes, the Asian monkey with almond-shaped eyes and the black monkey positioned in the center."
NBC News has reached out to Fugazzotto for comment.
The artist regularly uses primates in his work unrelated to soccer. But the choice of Serie A to commission an image that is regularly used as a term of abuse has left many appalled.
"Once again Italian football leaves the world speechless," Fare, an organization that tackles discrimination in soccer, said in a statement. "In a country in which the authorities fail to deal with racism week after week Serie A have launched a campaign that looks like a sick joke."
The group asked if anyone was consulted about the images, branding them an "outrage" and alleging they would "continue the dehumanization of people" on the soccer field.
Another anti-discrimination group, Kick It Out, called the artwork is "completely inappropriate" and "undermines any positive intent and will be counter-productive."
Several of Italy's most successful teams quickly lined up to denounce the paintings. AC Milan tweeted: "We strongly disagree with the use of monkeys as images in the fight against racism and were surprised by the total lack of consultation."
While Roma said that it "was very surprised to see what appears to be an anti-racist campaign from Serie A featuring painted monkeys."
The former England and Liverpool forward Stan Collymore added sarcastically: "Maybe get the mascots to black up as a finishing touch?"
Rather than apologize the league doubled down Tuesday, saying in a statement to The Associated Press that "true art is provocation." It said the idea behind the paintings was that "whoever shouts racist chants regresses to his primitive status of being a monkey."
Racism continues to pollute Italian soccer at the highest level.
Players such as Romelu Lukaku, a Belgian forward who plays for Inter Milan, and Mario Balotelli, of France and Brescia, have been taunted by fans using racial slurs.
The abuse isn't limited to a few fringe voices on the ground.
Balotelli's own chairman, Massimo Cellino, said last month, "What can I say? That he's black and he's working to whiten himself but he has great difficulties in this." A high-profile pundit was fired after saying the only way to stop Lukaku was to feed him 10 bananas to eat.
And the Italian newspaper Corriere dello Sport was widely criticized after printing the headline "Black Friday" alongside a picture of Lukaku and the English defender Chris Smalling, who plays for Roma.
The problem is far from confined to one country.
Just two weeks ago in England, players from Manchester United reporting receiving racist abuse during their game with local rivals Manchester City.
And in October, a lower-level match in England's FA Cup competition was abandoned altogether after reports that some fans were racially abusing players and throwing bottles onto the field.