Is a Tolkein Exhibition in Rome Part of Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni’s Far-Right Agenda?

The fantasy world of Lord of the Rings has been seen by some as an allegory for conservative ideals.

Italy's prime minister Giorgia Meloni on November 6, 2023 in Rome, Italy. Photo by Simona Granati - Corbis/Corbis via Getty Images.

The Lord of the Rings is one of the best loved book series of all time, so a new exhibition dedicated to its author J.R.R. Tolkien could only be a good thing, right? That may depend on your political leanings. Widespread speculation about one show opening next week in Rome suggests it could be a pawn in the Italian prime minister Giorgia Meloni’s far-right cultural agenda.

Organized as part of a program of events commemorating 50 years since Tolkien’s death, “Tolkien: Man, Professor, Author” was first announced to rapturous applause at a special event for the youth faction of the ruling right-wing political party Fratelli d’Italia in July. The show is sponsored by Italy’s ministry of culture at a rumored cost of €250,000 ($270,000) and opens at Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art on November 16, when it will be officially inaugurated by Meloni.

Meloni has made no secret of the fact that she is more than just a casual Tolkien fan. Now aged 46, she apparently first read The Lord of the Rings at age 11. Shortly afterwards, she joined the youth faction of the post-fascist, far-right political party Italian Social Movement (MSI) and attended “Hobbit 93,” a Tolkien-inspired festival headlined by the far-right band Compagnia dell’Anello (Fellowship of the Ring).

J.R.R. Tolkien. Image courtesy of Italy’s Ministry of Culture.

Shortly after she was elected Italy’s youngest ever government minister in 2008, at the age of 31, Meloni posed next to a statue of Gandalf for a magazine profile. Fourteen years later, as she was wrapping up an apparently persuasive campaign for Italy’s premiership last fall, Meloni referenced Aragorn, another protagonist from The Lord of the Rings, quoting him during a speech at her final rally in Rome.

Speaking to the New York Times, she even claimed she doesn’t the consider the trilogy to be a fantasy but, rather, a “sacred” text.

While J.R.R. Tolkien himself rejected extremism or the notion that his books contained any covert political message, they have long held a deeper meaning for Italy’s right. The Lord of the Rings’s central premise that (presumed white) warriors fight off monstrous orcs and the importance placed on the fertile, unspoiled lands of The Shire have been interpreted by some as a denouncement of modernity and a xenophobic paean to the past. The first Italian edition included an introduction by the philosopher Elémire Zolla, who emphasized the saga as an allegory for a “pure” population besieged by a foreign threat. An in-depth account of how this inspired a new generation of far-right radicals has been published by the Fair Observer.

“He was a staunch Catholic who exalted the value of tradition and of the community to which one belongs,” said Italy’s culture minister Gennaro Sangiuliano of Tolkien when he announced the exhibition. “A true conservative, one might say.” According to the The Times, Italy’s undersecretary for culture Vittoria Sgarbi said Sangiuliano prepared the exhibition as “a favor to the premier.”

Since the Fratelli d’Italia came to power last fall, they have been exerting their influence over Italy’s art and culture sector, most recently by nominating the right-wing journalist Pietrangelo Buttafuoco to be the next president of the Venice Biennale.

Tolkien: Man, Professor, Author” is curated by the Tolkien expert Oronzo Cilli and will include more than 150 items, including the author’s photographs, letters, and other archival documents. It also boasts a “multimedia” section exploring Tolkien’s fantasy world and inviting visitors to immerse themselves in a recreation of Middle-earth. After its run in Rome is over, the show will travel to other Italian cities in 2024.


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