Steve Bannon’s Right-Wing ‘Gladiator’ School Could Go Ahead Following Legal Win in Italy

Bannon's associate Benjamin Harnwell has been acquitted of criminal charges amid a political shift in Italy's culture sector.

Benjamin Harnwell, right, translates as former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon participates in a press conference at Atreju 2018, a conference of right-wing activists, on Saturday, Sept 22, 2018 in Rome, Italy. Photo: Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images.

Steve Bannon, former chief strategist to President Donald Trump, has vowed to build his so-called “gladiator” school—the Academy of the Judeo-Christian West—in an 800-year-old Italian monastery after his conservative British associate, Benjamin Harnwell, was cleared of criminal charges amid a years-long dispute with Italian authorities.

Harnwell was acquitted last month of charges of bid-rigging and breach of contract for the procurement of the Trisulti Charterhouse monastery, just south of Rome. The five-year legal battle had been initiated by former culture minister Dario Franceschini of the center-left. But it has come to a close in a starkly different political context that has been shaking up the nation’s culture sector since the far-right leader Giorgia Meloni was elected as Prime Minister in 2022. She and her appointed culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, both have ties with Bannon.

“I’m not a criminal,” Harnwell said in a video call. “The prosecution said that they took the case based on the nature of the accusations, which had been levied against me publicly… But the prosecution said it was clear I didn’t make any fraudulent statements in the tender process. They themselves asked the judge to acquit me.”

The dispute stems from a 19-year lease that was obtained as part of an experiment in privatization of Italian cultural assets launched in 2016 by then-culture minister Franceschini in an effort to drive investment in the country. Harnwell, the founder of the Dignitatis Humanae Institute, a conservative think tank funded by Bannon that aims to promote a Judeo-Christian approach to political policymaking, acquired the lease for the monastery in February 2018 after a call for bids and the approval of the Italian Ministry of Culture.

Legal proceedings

Italy’s law allowing for such historic buildings to be leased was “pretty groundbreaking” when it was passed, according to Harnwell. But when Harnwell and Bannon’s plans to institute a nationalist school within the monastery became public, the Italian culture ministry initiated charges to annul the lease, which were initially overturned by an Italian civil court in 2020.

According to Harnwell, the prosecutors used Code of Administrative Procedure, Article 21, Part 9, against him, which says that the if the civil service becomes aware that a tender has been won fraudulently it can annul it, but it must first receive a sentence from a criminal court.

The culture ministry appealed the 2020 decision and the Rome public prosecutor’s office filed an additional criminal lawsuit, alleging that Harnwell provided false information to meet the requirements for the tender, among other allegations including that he failed to ensure the proper conservation of the monastery and owed €200,000 in rent.

Harnwell was ultimately evicted from the premises in 2021 by the Italian Council of State, a legal body that oversees public administration. He claimed that the lawsuit was a politically driven prosecution and that the authorities took the dispute through a legal system that kept him from a fair defense, he said.

“Not only did they never obtain a sentence, they never even sued me for any of the things that they accused me of doing, all of which was illegal,” Harnwell said. He added that “no landlord in any country in the West can just arbitrarily and unilaterally annul a lease, at least on the basis of what the leaseholder has said he is going to do but hasn’t even done yet”, noting the school hadn’t opened at the time he was evicted.

In the image, a man stands in a sunlit courtyard filled with vibrant potted plants, primarily pink and red flowers. He is dressed in a casual yet smart manner with a striped shirt and a black padded jacket. The man has a confident stance and gives a direct gaze towards the camera, with a slight smile on his face. Behind him, there's a statue of the Virgin Mary, a common figure in Catholic iconography, which, along with the architecture and plants, suggests the setting might be a religious institution or a place with religious significance. The warm sunlight and the relaxed posture of the man convey a calm and inviting atmosphere.

Benjamin Harnwell, director of the Dignitas Humanae Institute (DHI), stands in Trisulti Monastery, a 13th century charterhouse he rented. Steve Bannon, former chief strategist of U.S. President Trump, wants to convert the monastery into an academy. Photo: Alvise Armellini/picture alliance via Getty Images.

In March, a magistrate in a northern Roman courthouse ruled that he had obtained the lease correctly and had paid all funds due, echoing the verdict of the 2020 civil court ruling. The state’s prosecutor also dropped two of its charges.

The ministry of culture’s case appeared to lose steam after Sangiuliano’s appointment as minister of culture in late 2022. A trial originally scheduled for December had to be postponed because the state’s prosecutor was insufficiently prepared. By the time the hearing went ahead, the state’s star witness repeatedly failed to show up to court, apparently citing Alzheimer’s.

The judge has been given 90 days to explain her reasoning, after which the Italian state will have 45 days to decide whether to appeal the decision.

Italy’s ministry of culture did not respond to a request for comment on these legal proceedings or whether it would attempt to prevent Harnwell and Bannon from reclaiming the monastery.

“I want that monastery,” said Bannon, speaking with Harnwell on his “War Room” podcast after the charges were dropped. “I think it would make for great headquarters of the Academy of the Judeo-Christian West.”

Although he has been cleared of wrongdoing by the courts, Harnwell said the case gives credence to those who accuse Italy of being a “backwards, corrupt country.” Additionally, he accused the government of creating chaos for political reasons and suggested he could take the case to Court of Justice of the European Union in Luxembourg, indicating that he believes Italy acted against the laws of the E.U.

When asked whether he believed his school would have faced such troubles if Bannon’s name had not been attached to it, Harnwell noted that his name was in a prominent place on the website since the project began—even before he bid on the tender.

Political shifts

When questioned why he didn’t first try to appeal to the right-wing government of Prime Minister Meloni, which took power after Harnwell’s case began, Harnwell noted that the case is a question for the courts even if “independent observers believe that the previous government put its thumb on the judicial scales.” And, he said the present government is “broadly indifferent” to the dilemma.

Meloni’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The image features a man and a woman, identified as Steve Bannon and Georgia Meloni. They are outdoors, and both are wearing jackets. The background includes the sky.

Former White House Chief Strategist Steve Bannon, left, arrives with leader of the right-wing party “Fratelli d’Italia”, Giorgia Meloni, to attend a congress of the party in Rome on September 22, 2018. Photo: Tiziana FABI / AFP via Getty Images.

Meloni and Bannon were previously pictured together in 2018 and she has worked closely with him since then, according to the Guardian. But her view on Harnwell’s proposed Academy of the Judeo-Christian West is not publicly known.

“I love her for how she is normalizing the right in power in Italy,” Bannon recently told the Corriere della Serra of Meloni, before condemning her decision to cooperate with NATO and the E.U. in supporting Ukraine. Meanwhile, Sangiuliano, Italy’s current culture minister, met and interviewed both Bannon and Harnwell in 2019 when they were guests on TG2, a news program then directed by Sangiuliano.

Since their party, the Fratelli d’Italia, was elected 2022, Meloni and Sangiuliano have wasted no time installing several like-minded right-wing thinkers into top positions within Italy’s cultural sector. Most notably, the right-wing journalist Pietrangelo Buttafuoco was controversially nominated by Sangiuliano to be president of the Venice Biennale, one of the top leadership roles for art and culture in the world.

Two right-wing journalists who were present during the panel discussion with Bannon hosted by Sangiuliano on TG2 have also received prized promotions. Sangiuliano named right-wing journalist Alessandro Giuli president of the MAXXI, Italy’s most important museum for contemporary art, while Meloni-backed Giampaolo Rossi is now director general of RAI, Italy’s state broadcaster.

Despite the right-wing shift, Harnwell said he’s looking at other options for the school’s location because, in speaking with his investors, they fear what could happen “after what they did to us before.” He added that there are no current back-up plans for the monastery if his investors don’t want to open the school in Italy, noting that he would need to sign a new memorandum with the Italian government to take the monastery back.

He also said the partners may consider building the school in Hungary, led by the country’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban, even if he can reclaim the monastery.

“We’re looking at the United States and we’re looking at Hungary,” Harnwell said of possible new locations for the school. When asked whether he viewed Orban—widely considered one of the most nationalistic political leaders currently in power—positively, he responded: “Is there any other way to view him?”

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