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Italy disrupts Steve Bannon’s plan for a right-wing academy in a monastery

The entrance of the Trisulti monastery, where Stephen K. Bannon and Benjamin Harnwell hoped to launch a gladiator school for right-wing culture warriors. (Ginevra Sammartino for The Washington Post)

ROME — Stephen K. Bannon had plans to train the next generation of nationalists and right-wing culture warriors at a medieval monastery in the mountains outside Rome.

But on Friday, the Italian government put those plans in severe doubt, announcing that it intends to revoke the rights to the property, citing among its reasons a failure to pay concession fees and do maintenance work.

“Proceeding with the revocation is thus a duty,” an official at Italy’s culture ministry, Gianluca Vacca, said in a statement.

The apparent decision jeopardizes one of the projects Bannon had hoped could define his legacy in Europe — a “gladiator school” intended to train future far-right leaders in an outpost previously occupied by monks. Bannon had said he would teach at the academy — and he has personally helped to fund it.

Because of the involvement of the former White House chief strategist, the project has been controversial, and in recent months, the Trisulti monastery has been the target of protests in the nearest village.

Bannon is an ally of Italy’s most prominent politician, Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League. But left-leaning Italian parliamentarians had said it was unsuitable for Bannon to have a hand in one of the country’s cultural properties.

Italy’s statement on Friday said its decision had “nothing to do” with “political opinions.” The vast walled property has frescoed ceilings, a historical pharmacy and a garden maze — but it also needs major renovations.

A conservative Catholic think tank called the Human Dignity Institute, run by close Bannon associate Benjamin Harnwell, had won a bid for the monastery in 2017, securing a long-term lease that required annual rent of $112,000. Harnwell moved into the monastery soon after and began discussing plans for the school, which he said would help produce a new generation of leaders who adhered to Bannon’s worldview. Meantime, Harnwell was sharing the property with an aging monk, a gardener and chef, and a band of feral cats.

“[The project is] definitely going to work,” Harnwell told The Washington Post late last year. “I’ve got lecturers writing from all over the world. It’s got to do with the fact that Steve Bannon’s name is attached to it.”

In a statement Friday, Harnwell said his think tank will dispute the apparent government move with “every resource at its disposal no matter how many years it takes.”

“The Ministry for Culture might be prepared to surrender to every whim of the extreme left — the [Human Dignity Institute] will never do so,” Harnwell said. This is nothing more than the braying of the cultural Marxist left against the defense of Western Civilization.”

In a separate statement Friday, Bannon said, “The fight for Trisulti is a microcosm of the fight for the Judeo-Christian West.”

In a short phone interview, Harnwell said that his think tank did not have funding problems and that he has an agreement with officials of the culture ministry to use rent payments on renovations. He said he had not been able put “even a nail in the wall” until signing a document in January finalizing rights to the property.

“It was understood that the [rent] money would be spent on redevelopment,” Harnwell said.

The planned academy had caused discontent even within Harnwell’s think tank, according to Politico, which quoted its then-honorary president, Cardinal Renato Maria Martino raising objections in a letter to Harnwell in January. Martino said there should be “no distortions or modifications” to the think tank’s original idea of using Trisulti as a Catholic study center.

In explaining its apparent decision, Italy’s Culture Ministry referred to a report published several weeks ago in la Repubblica newspaper saying that a letter backing the think tank’s business plan — provided during the tender process from a Danish bank with a branch in Gibraltar — had been forged. The Economist subsequently quoted a managing director of the bank as saying the letter had been signed by a woman who “hasn’t been in the bank for years.”

Bannon told the magazine that “everything actually is totally legitimate.”

“All of this stuff,” he said, “is just dust being kicked up by the left.”

Stefano Pitrelli contributed to this report.

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