CERTOSA DI TRISULTI, COLLEPARDO, ITALY - Benjamin Harnwell, a British acolyte of Donald Trump’s former chief strategist, Steve Bannon, says he and his mentor plan to fight efforts to scrap their plans to turn a picturesque medieval monastery in the mountainous Italian heartland into a boot camp for populist activists.
Last year, amid cries of outrage from the Italian left, the 43-year-old Harnwell and Bannon secured a two-decadelong lease on the Trisulti Charterhouse, a 13th century monastery in Collepardo, in the central Italian province of Frosinone, on the slopes of a forested peak 825 meters above sea level.
Announcing the plan, Bannon talked combatively about establishing a "gladiator school," where populist political-cultural warriors would be schooled to skirmish with the left, taught conservative Catholic values and tutored in how to defend the West’s Judeo-Christian roots.
But Italy’s culture ministry overseeing the 800-year-old monastery, which is a listed national monument, has announced it intends to revoke the 100,000 euro-a-year lease it granted the duo only a few months ago after a competitive tendering process.
Harnwell said he plans to fight the ministerial revocation, however long it might take. Given the sluggish pace of the Italian courts, that could take years. His attitude is, bring it on.
“Great, I am looking forward to this,” he said. But he worries Bannon might lose patience with all the obstacles they are facing in getting the academy functioning.
The ministry has cited “violations of various contractual obligations” for its decision. Some of those obligations include restoring the monastery, which features half-dozen chapels, a maze, a water mill, monk cells and a trout pond (currently without fish).
The lease is officially held by a nonprofit controlled by Harnwell and Bannon called the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), whose “goal is to protect and promote human dignity based on the anthropological truth that man is born in the image and likeness of God,” according to its mission statement.
Founded in 2008 by Harnwell to promote traditional Christian values in Western politics, DHI once had the support of prominent liberal Catholics, as well as Conservatives. But with Bannon’s involvement, liberals have been exiting, including the British peer Lord Alton.
So, too, have Catholic prelates, who worry about the mixing freely of politics and religion, and fear DHI has been hijacked by Bannon.
“There is a certain edginess to Steve’s message, and the left do play on that to great effect to try to shut down the debate and scare people away," Harnwell said. "That edginess comes from his very strong anti-establishment dynamic, and politicians are quite herd-like, so this is also a considerable factor behind the resignations from the DHI. In the end, Steve is on the right side of history, so he will, I think, be vindicated by posterity.”
The ministry’s decision followed a series of anti-Bannon protests outside the monastery, with activists accusing Bannon of being a white supremacist and a crypto-fascist, claims Harnwell dismisses as slurs.
Chiarina Ianni, a 58-year-old lawyer who has been helping to organize the protests, told reporters at a recent rally that Bannon’s plans for Trisulti are in “stark contrast with the spirit of this monastery, which has long been a route of peace for pilgrims and walkers.”
Aside from contemplative spirituality, Trisulti is renowned for having created the first Sambuca liquor, produced by the monks using local herbs.
Italian newspapers have also criticized the granting of the concession. There have been media allegations that a fraudulent bank letter was used in DHI’s bid, a charge denied by Harnwell, who says all the criticism is “driven by the left and the hard left.”
“The revoking of the concession to Steve Bannon is a positive development,” said Mauro Buschini, from the center-left Democratic Party. “The monastery should now return to being the patrimony of everyone, a jewel that the world should know.”
Harnwell said he can understand why the ministry made the decision.
“Given everything that’s been written about the DHI, most of it just not true, I think it legitimate for the state to open inquiries. And it is in my interest that they do that, because it is the only way I can clear the DHI’s name,” he said.
“Of course, if we come through this, we will be stronger,” he added.
Harnwell paused on this humid hot day — shaded from the sun by a Panama hat — to show this reporter what he described as the medieval equivalent of modern-day mobile messaging apps: a board used by Cistercian monks to communicate orders and duties for the day to avoid having to talk and disturb “the atmosphere of silence” the monastic order embraces.
Harnwell said he considered becoming a priest himself, but decided against because “I am not good at talking orders.” He is clearly in his element in the monastery, knows every nook and cranny, and said he first started planning the academy in 2015, when the monastery had only five resident monks.
He is currently sharing the monastery, 70 kilometers east of Rome, with the octogenarian former prior, who has been recalled by his monastic superiors but has delayed leaving.
“He doesn’t approve of us,” Harnwell said of the prior, as he frets about when to spray the luxuriant shrubs in the monastery’s former botanical garden to protect them from moth larvae.
As we approach the abbey church, Harnwell perks up, adding that the prior “officiates at Sunday Mass.”
Harnwell rejects the idea that locating an activists’ academy deep in Italy’s remote mountainous heartland with inadequate broadband internet is somehow quixotic. “It is perfect for what we want to do,” he said.
He said the plan is to refashion students totally.
“We are going to rip out everything of a person that is of this world and throw it away,” and reform them to be single-minded activists," he said.
The villagers of Collepardo, population 961, seem bemused at all the fuss and how what was once the spiritual mountain redoubt of semi-silent monks has become a lightning rod in a clamorous, continent-wide political battle between populists and their opponents.
“Most of us don’t like Bannon’s politics,” the owner of a local bar said. “But if they get going, then it would mean jobs for locals. And if they get evicted, what will happen to the monastery then? It will become just another crumbling monument that the state can’t afford to maintain,” she said.