Bannon loses battle to start right-wing academy in Italy

Protesters in Collepardo march as they hold a banner against Steve Bannon and his initiative to create a populist academy in the Trisulti monastery. | Giada Zampano

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.

Protesters displaying anti-Bannon banners march in Collepardo, a couple of hours outside of Rome. The banners say “Reject them” and “Stay Human.” | Giada Zampano

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.”

Steve Bannon’s close ally Benjamin Harnwell inside the Trisulti medieval monastery, where he lives with a 83-year-old monk and a cook-gardener | Giada Zampano

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.

A young protester with his dog during the march toward the Trisulti abbey, where Steve Bannon wants to create his populist academy | Giada Zampano

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 far-right Brothers of Italy 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.


Bannon loses battle to start right-wing academy in Italy

Former Trump strategist Steve Bannon speaks in Prague
Steve Bannon | Martin Divisek/EFE via EPA | Martin Divisek/EFE via EPA

Steve Bannon, former Breitbart executive and ex-chief strategist to Donald Trump, has lost a legal battle to create a right-wing academy in Italy.

Italy’s Council of State on Monday ruled against the Bannon-backed Dignitas Humanae Institute (DHI) and its attempt to start an academy in an 800-year-old abbey.

The DHI had planned to launch a leadership program targeted at right-wing Catholic activists in the Trisulti Charterhouse in Collepardo, south of Rome, drawing protest from locals. The Italian culture ministry — which owns the abbey — withdrew its license in 2019 over violations of contractual obligations, sparking a series of legal battles.

In a statement following Monday’s decision, Bannon vowed to “appeal and win.” DHI founder Benjamin Harnwell also told Reuters the institute intended to appeal.

The academy was part of Bannon’s — largely unrealized — vision to bring together populists from across Europe and drew interest from prominent far-right figures such as former Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini.

“This ruling is not only a victory for the Ministry of Cultural Heritage,” regional councillor Sara Battisti told Corriere Della Sera, “but also for the entire province of Frosinone,” where the abbey is located.

CORRECTION: This article has been updated to correct the spelling of Steve Bannon’s first name.