COLLEPARDO, Italy — After masterminding Donald Trump’s success, Steve Bannon turned his attention to building a far-right political movement in Europe. But a group of activists in a tiny village outside Rome are hoping to disrupt that effort.
Around 200 people marched Saturday in Collepardo, an hour and a half from the Italian capital, to protest Bannon’s plans to create a training school for nationalists in the Trisulti Charterhouse, a former Carthusian monastery.
Trump’s former adviser last year announced his intentions to turn the 800-year-old medieval abbey — previously inhabited by monks and a colony of feral cats — into an academy for the next wave of populist politicians.
Protesters marched toward the monastery on Saturday displaying banners that read “Stop Bannon, Free Europe,” and “Trisulti, European land.” The anti-Bannon activists argue the institution, founded in 1204, is a true “European outpost” that embodies “ideas that are inclusive and do not shut out the world.”
Their hope is to challenge the legal basis of the concession through which the monastery is being leased, on the basis that the aims of the academy aren’t in line with the building’s purpose.
Those opposed to the project say Bannon’s academy would transform a place of peace and hospitality into a stronghold of international populism and anti-European nationalism. “That would be in stark contrast with the spirit of this monastery, which has long been a route of peace for pilgrims and walkers,” said Chiarina Ianni, a 58-year-old lawyer who came to march from Frosinone, a few kilometers away.
Ianni is advising a network of local activists on revoking the concession for the academy, an effort spurred on by Italy’s undersecretary for cultural heritage Gianluca Vacca, who told parliament in January that the academy does not meet the terms of its concession.
But Bannon’s close associate Benjamin Harnwell, who is heading up the academy, says he is not worried by the protests. In an interview in the abbey’s garden on Saturday, Harnwell said he is motivated to build an academy to train the “next generation of nationalist and populist leaders,” in line with Bannon’s goal to create a “gladiator school for culture warriors.”
Harnwell is in charge of the Catholic Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), the organization considered the “cultural arm” of Bannon’s populist push in Italy and in Europe, and to which the Italian government has leased the Trisulti buildings.
As Bannon moves to set up “war rooms” across the Continent to help his movement ahead of May’s European Parliament election, Harnwell said they are working in “separate corners of the same battlefield.”
DHI, a foundation close to the conservative U.S. Cardinal Raymond Leo Burke, will create a program of classes at the monastery that transforms “a university of herbal knowledge into a laboratory of ideas,” Harnwell said.
Harnwell said protests against the academy are being led by Italy’s left-wing parties, and said he has a “good relationship” with the local Trisulti community. “There are also local people who support the academy, and that’s what we call the silent majority,” he said.
Ianni, one of many locals at Saturday’s event alongside activists from other Italian regions, said Bannon and his associates don’t have the right to “occupy” Trisulti, adding it is a “public good and has to remain like that.”
The monastery, nestled in woods on the slopes of the region’s mountains, is famous for creating the first Sambuca liquor, produced by monks mixing thousands of local herbs. Harnwell, for now one of the building’s three inhabitants, lives there alongside an 83-year-old monk and the monastery’s long-time cook-gardener.
He said it will train future politicians in philosophy, theology, economics and history, “defending the Judeo-Christian foundations of Western civilization, through the recognition that man is made in the image and likeness of God.”
The Trisulti academy would become a major cultural initiative linked to the Movement, Bannon’s political project to support right-wing and anti-establishment groups across Europe, Harnwell said.
For Nicola Fratoianni, leader of the left-wing Sinistra Italiana party, who participated in the protest, handing over the Trisulti abbey to Bannon and his associates means betraying the place’s cultural and European roots. “It’s true that the monastery was founded in the Middle Age. But we want medieval ideas to remain inside those stone walls. We need instead to fight the emergence of this black wave of ultra-conservative movements across Europe and help support European values,” he said.
Since the contract was signed a year ago, the monastery has become accessible only through guided tours. “That’s another reason why local people are enraged,” said Daniela Bianchi, a former regional councillor with the center-left Democratic Party, and one of the organizers of the protest. “The monastery is a common good and can’t become a symbol of conservative closure.”
However, Massimo Ruspandini, a senator for the Brothers of Italy far-right party, said he has no concerns about the academy threatening local traditions. “I don’t see any contradiction between the history of Trisulti and Bannon’s initiative,” Ruspandini said.
“Trisulti is an architrave of Christianity and tradition and that does not contrast at all with Bannon’s ideas on sovereignty and nationalism,” he said.