Italy’s first female prime minister — and its most far right since World War II — has channeled Daenerys Targaryen from “Game of Thrones,” posing atop a smoke-spewing dragon at a 2018 comic convention in Rome. During last year’s election campaign, she briefly posted an image of herself next to an Iron Throne alongside the caption: “A mass invasion of foreigners? Not today.” Her far-right brethren from the Brothers of Italy party retreat each year to Atreyu, a summerfest named after the dragon-riding warrior in “The NeverEnding Story.”
Who gets to curate ‘David’? In Italy, the culture wars get a nationalist edge.
Yet for Meloni and a horde of fantasy-loving politicians in Italy’s far right, nothing is more precious than the works of Tolkien, in whose writing they see themselves as a ragtag fellowship battling the Lidless Eye of the European left. Italy’s post-fascist far-right hosted “Hobbit Camps” for young conservatives as far back as the 1970s. In her autobiography, Meloni concedes to a lifelong adoration of Tolkien’s works, including dressing as the hobbit Samwise Gamgee with other politically aspirant youth.
Now, Meloni’s government has transformed her greatest literary passion into a massive new Tolkien exhibition at Rome’s National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art. Commemorating 50 years after the British author’s death and costing a reported 250,000 euros ($271,210), the show was inaugurated Wednesday by Meloni and puts illustrations of orcs, elves and dragons in rooms adjacent to works by Marcel Duchamp and Jackson Pollock.
Tolkien rejected attempts to interpret his books as real-world allegories. But nationalists in Italy and beyond see his black-and-white tale of “good” in the west and “evil” in the east as laden with Christian themes and traditional values. Thus, the exhibit has opened a new front in Italy’s culture wars, with liberal critics decrying the right’s appropriation of a beloved fantasy author and arguing that his sub-themes of environmentalism and personal distaste for totalitarianism make him anything but a far-right icon.
But Italian progressives, known more for exalting the erudite works of Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino, are also looking down at what they see as the anti-intellectualism of a right-wing prime minister entranced by what some of them dismiss as high school literature.
“The problem is not Tolkien or the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit, but the fact that this is being put through a political lens and used as a tool for revenge by right-wing culture,” said Matteo Orfini, a national lawmaker from the opposition Democratic Party.
He added, “I mean, I loved the book too … when I was 15.”
This week, a satirical show, “Blob,” blasted out an AI-generated image of Meloni as an elf. Il Manifesto, a left-wing outlet, declared the exhibition an example of right-wing “hegemony in the name of the hobbits.” Rome’s La Repubblica called the exhibit’s opening evening “a regime’s parade,” referencing the sheer volume of right-wing ministers, allies, friends and party officials who attended the inauguration.
Corriere della Sera, meanwhile, heralded her arrival at the exhibit dressed in white, from head to toe, “like Galadriel, the tough elven lady from the Lord of the Rings.”
Nicola Procaccini, a member of the European Parliament from Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, as well a friend of the prime minister and fellow Tolkien fan, dismissed the left’s criticism as elitism.
“It’s the typical snobbery of a left that deems simple stories not sophisticated enough to be appreciated,” he said. “That also goes for the New Testament. Parables are simple stories meant to convey high concepts. Now I don’t think Tolkien wanted to write a sort of New Testament … but his worldview was very spiritual, and that’s reflected in his works.”
At the opening Wednesday, Meloni appeared to chide the press when asked about the show, first laughing, then saying “I don’t think you’re interested.” Inside, her culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, personally escorted conservative cabinet members through rooms holding an exact replica of Tolkien’s study and a hologram in which Gandalf, Frodo and company appeared to drift across a map of Middle Earth on green platforms.
At a listening booth, eventgoers could hear dialogue spoken by Pino Insegno, voice of the character Aragorn in the Italian-dubbed version of Lord of the Rings. Insegno was the master of ceremonies at Meloni’s closing campaign rally last year, where he introduced her with the words: “Sons of Rohan, my brothers, people of Rome … the day of defeat may come, but it is not this day!”
In various rooms, board games based on “Lo Hobbit” were encased in glass, along with a model of a thatched home in the mythical Shire and a framed sketch from an Italian Disney comic showing Frodo as Donald Duck. Elaborate replicas of costumes from the Peter Jackson films held court alongside fantasy-fest like renderings of rearing dragons and roaring orcs.
The exhibit also cites a variety of Tolkien fans — including former president Barack Obama, Pope Francis and Ringo Starr — and its only overtly political gesture appeared to be its mere existence. That, said Giuseppe Pezzini, a University of Oxford fellow and Tolkien expert hired to serve as the exhibition’s consultant, was by design.
“My job was to make everything open and nonpolitical and scientific,” said Pezzini, adding that he identifies as left-wing. “That was my specific task.”
Still, the event’s opening nevertheless appeared to be leveraged as something of a political moment. A gaggle of young men from the National Youth movement of Meloni’s far right party — invited to the event by the Culture Ministry — roamed the exhibit, checking out the renderings of orcs and wizards and a Lord of the Rings pinball machine.
“I am convinced that there are some extremely educational and formative aspects to the Lord of the Rings,” said Andrea Paramano, 21, of the youth contingent. “Loyalty toward friends, respect of traditions, and the theme of the journey — which is not necessarily physical, but also internal, formative.”
After the first Italian translation of Lord of the Rings in the 1970s, the books were adopted as a new and wholesome frame for a post-Fascist right in Italy seeking to redefine itself after the dark days of Benito Mussolini. Unlike conservatives in the United States and Britain, the Italian “new right” also shared a deep distrust of the free market and consumer culture — something they saw rejected in a cautionary tale of One Ring to Rule Them All.
At one Hobbit-themed camp in 1980 hosted by the Italian right wing, conservatives-in-training gorged on panini at a mock Prancing Pony (a tavern in the books) and grooved to the sounds of the band Compagnia dell’Anello, or Fellowship of the Ring.
“We saw our own struggle in Tolkien’s work,” said Annalisa Terranova, 61, political editor of Secolo d’Italia, a right-wing Italian newspaper. “We were a new generation forming a sort of small fellowship, a bulwark against communism. We saw our battle for freedom against the shadow of Marxism and materialism.” ”
Meloni embraced that tradition, using an early internet handle in which she described herself as the “little dragon of the Italian undernet.” In 2008, she appeared in a magazine alongside an image of the wizard Gandalf astride his steed, Shadowfax. In her autobiography “I am Giorgia,” she writes of her politically active, conservative friends meeting each week to a “horn call” echoing “the mighty horn of Boromir from the Lord of the Rings.”
Historians of Tolkien, however, dismiss his adoption by the far-right as political appropriation.
“I don’t see Tolkien’s characters in a fight against the left,” said Riccardo Capoferro, a professor of English literature at the University of Rome who has studied Tolkien. “That’s a very vague understanding of Tolkien as a writer and thinker.”
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