Culture ministry failed to vet right-wing religious group close to Steve Bannon

In a 13th-century monastery, the Dignitatis Humanae Institute hopes to establish a “school for gladiators”, espousing the views of Steve Bannon © Marco Bonomo/Parallelozero

As the battle over the future of a spectacular 13th-century monastery east of Rome heads to court, the Italian ministry of culture has spoken for the first time about why it entrusted the historic building to a religious organisation affiliated with US president Donald Trumps former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, which it is now trying to evict.

Antonio Lampis, the director general of museums at the ministry, tells The Art Newspaper that the Italian government awarded a 19-year lease on the Certosa di Trisulti, a former Carthusian hilltop abbey set in dense forest near the village of Collepardo, to a religious lobby group set up by the British conservative Catholic Benjamin Harnwell, because of “extreme” staff shortages at the ministry.

The surprising admission suggests that the government failed to adequately review Harnwells bid for the monastery, which he submitted on behalf of the religious organisation he founded, the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI). Harnwell dismisses the ministrys explanation and notes that the officials in charge of evaluating his proposal for the historic building had plenty of time and staff to assess it.

The academy was intended to provide instruction in theology, philosophy, history and politics, and to “institutionalise the thoughts and political insights of Steve Bannon”

The contract awarding the building to the DHI was finalised in January 2019 as part of an initiative designed to engage the private sector in the management of the numerous cultural sites in Italy that require occupation and restoration. This stipulated that the DHI would invest €1.9m over the duration of the lease towards the restoration of the monastery.

The decision to entrust the historic building complex, which is a listed national monument, to a right-wing religious group with self-declared political aims sparked protests and parliamentary questions after Harnwell and Bannon revealed that they intended to set up a “school for gladiators” in which they would train the next generation of “culture warriors”. The Academy for the Judeo-Christian West was intended to provide instruction in theology, philosophy, history and politics, and to “institutionalise the thoughts and political insights of Steve Bannon”, Harnwell says. Bannon and other right-wing political strategists and leaders were expected to teach at the school.

In April, Nicola Zingaretti, the secretary of the Democratic Party and president of the Lazio region, wrote to the then culture minister Alberto Bonisoli decrying the “openly xenophobic” political activities planned for a monastery “which has been a place of prayer, peace and meditation for eight centuries”, while Nicola Fratoianni, the secretary of the Italian Left party, questioned the decision twice in parliament.

The Certosa di Trisulti © Mattis; Wikimedia

After investigations by Italian reporters revealed apparent irregularities in the DHIs application for the building (Harnwell disputes these alleged irregularities), Bonisoli announced in May that he was initiating eviction proceedings. The process stalled with the collapse of Italys ruling coalition but a decree annulling the DHIs lease, which is signed by Lampis, was finally issued in October. Harnwell and his associates, who remain in residence at the monastery, are now appealing the decision.

Ministry U-turn

The culture ministry is now arguing that the DHI did not meet the criteria required to take part in the competition for the management of the monastery and accuses the religious organisation of including “false” statements on its bid for the building. (Harnwell says no false statements were made.) But a five-person commission set up by the ministry to judge applications for the monasterys takeover met four times from April to June 2017 to assess the DHIs eligibility and its proposals for the Certosa; it finally awarded the DHIs application an overall score of 72.6 out of 100. So why did these alleged “false” statements not emerge when the commission was evaluating the DHIs proposal?

The lease on the 13th-century Certosa di Trisulti, a listed national monument, stipulated that the Dignitatis Humanae Institute would invest up to €1.9m in its restoration © Giuseppe Savo

According to Lampis, who took up his current post in September 2017, the ministrys entire museum division was hampered by a severe staff shortage. He says: “I cannot speak for the commission, as I arrived [after they had concluded the selection process] but, examining the situation, I have been able to ascertain that our offices at the time were affected by extremely serious, I would say extreme, staff shortages for the management of 500 important state-run museums as well as those cultural assets which the ministry intended to entrust to private organisations. Today these staffing conditions are still critical, but less dramatic.”

The ministrys decree annulling the DHIs lease notes that the organisations application was reassessed “accurately” in July 2019 and that this reappraisal revealed that the group did not meet the required criteria to take part in the competition for the management of the 13th-century abbey.

Legal showdown

One crucial issue concerns the organisations legal status in Italy at the time of the tender. The ministry is arguing that, under the terms of the competition for the monastery, participating organisations were required to be recognised as legal entities of a certain type under Italian law. But the DHI, which was founded iRead More – Source