On the opening night of Rome’s highest-profile new exhibition this week, senior government ministers in elegant suits rubbed shoulders with Roman socialites in fur coats, and eccentric art lovers rubbed shoulders with members of groups young people from the extreme right.
They all gazed at a drawing of a glam-rock Gandalf in a form-fitting wizard’s cloak, armies of acrylic orcs, and other fan art displayed in gilded frames. On one wall they studied a family tree of elves, men, and dwarves; on another, a glossary explaining the protagonists of Middle-earth (“Hobbits are a unique and distinct people known as Halflings.”) They stepped over an interactive floor map depicting Frodo and his companions sailing on a green saucer floating.
Some were enthusiastic, others perplexed. But if one were to wonder why the Italian Ministry of Culture had organized a major retrospective devoted to the life, academic career and literary works of JRR Tolkien, the British author of “The Lord of the Rings”, at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary art, a renowned space typically dedicated to modernist masters, and why everyone seemingly had to be there, one superfan had the answer.
“I found the exhibition very beautiful,” said Giorgia Meloni, the Prime Minister, after her personal visit to “Tolkien: man, teacher, author”. “As someone who knows the subject quite well, I discovered a lot of things I didn’t know.”
Most people know Tolkien’s books as bedtime stories or fantasy epics. But for Ms. Meloni and others who grew up in a post-fascist universe that could not publicly look to Italy’s recent past for heroes, Tolkien’s adventures — tales of warriors, of invading armies and ordinary people defending their homeland – provided a safe space to articulate their worldview. They dressed according to their character. They sang with the extremist folk group Fellowship of the Ring at right-wing youth jamborees called Camp Hobbit.
Today, as Ms. Meloni, 46, has moved from the political margins of her youth to the center of Italian political life, this esoteric subculture has followed her to the temples of great Italian art. At a meeting of the prime minister’s party leaders this summer, Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano called the show a “gift.” He said Tolkien was a major literary figure who deserved a major exhibition marking the 50th anniversary of his death. Instead, Ms. Meloni’s critics characterized the exhibition, which she called a “beautiful page of culture,” as a right-wing counteroffensive in the country’s culture wars.
Shortly after leaving the museum, visitors entered his fantasy land. Adjacent to a permanent collection of Italian masterpieces, the exhibition featured Tolkien’s letters and private possessions as well as archival photos of him smoking his pipe and wearing tweed suits as a professor at Oxford, and posing in a monastery on vacation in Italy.
Behind the glass cases were a collection of Hobbit-themed music, including Leonard Nimoy’s “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” a “Lord of the Rings” pinball machine, movie posters, stills and cartoon sketches. and hobbit sculptures.
The cloaked priests compared their hoods to the costumes on display.
“It’s special,” said Paola Comin, a veteran of the Italian film industry, who wore a white fur coat.
She walked past Maurizio Gasparri, a former minister and right-wing ally of Ms. Meloni, eager to demonstrate his deep knowledge of “Lord of the Rings.”
“Ask around who knows the names of the nine companions in the ring, see who answers,” he said, naming all nine. He added that when it came to Tolkien, “the right chose him as their author of choice.”
The show was intended to pass on that tradition, said members of the youth wing of Ms. Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, who were also in attendance.
“It’s a legacy,” said Andrea Paramano, a 21-year-old member, as he stood with his friends around models of the Shire and epic battles with Balrog, the fire monster. “It is transmitted. Respect for tradition…”
“Courage,” interrupted Gabriele Rosa, also 21 and a member of the party, while saying that young activists preferred to read about the real heroes of the post-fascist movement, who became martyrs during the domestic terrorism of the 1970s. “Until ‘to death.”
The evening belonged in many ways to the Minister of Culture, Mr. Sangiuliano, a former right-wing journalist, who guided his colleagues around the exhibition. He marched with the confidence of a man who had absolute power over the fate of some of the country’s museum directors, including the art historian who heads the museum where the exhibit was presented and whose mandate is coming to an end soon.
At a news conference announcing the exhibition earlier this month, Mr. Sangiuliano insisted that Ms. Meloni had not ordered the presentation, and responded to a question about the right’s love of “The Lord of the Rings” talking about the ignorance of journalists, the Indo-European roots of the word “conservatism”, the symbolism of fire, the innovations of Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill and the anti-colonialism of Charles de Gaulle.
“And Frodo?” » asked a journalist.
At the museum, he continued to insist that there was nothing partisan about the exhibit. He pointed to a wall featuring blurbs from fans of the writer, including Ringo Starr, Nicolas Cage and Barack Obama, whom a ministry spokesperson insisted was a “Tolkienian.”
Mr. Obama was quoted in the exhibit as saying that he had gone from the Hardy Boys to “‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ and stuff like that,” and that it wasn’t just about adventure stories, but they were also stories that taught me about social issues.
(The correct quote, from Mr. Obama, from an interview with child journalists at Scholastic News, notes that around age 13, he began reading “more serious books,” like “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “that made you think a little harder. They weren’t just adventure stories, but they were also, you know, stories that taught me about social issues.”)
“All the Tolkien readers,” Mr. Sangiuliano said proudly on the show. He then spotted another Tolkien enthusiast, Francesco Lollobrigida, Ms. Meloni’s brother-in-law and far-right agriculture minister. He showed her the fan art, and on the stairs the two stopped to read an excerpt from Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.”
Davide Martini, the curator and owner of the fan art in the exhibit, was perplexed by all the attention paid to politicians. A proud metalhead, he said he grew up in a room with walls covered in Tolkien calendars and works by Frank Frazetta, often called the godfather of fantasy art.
Mr. Martini was delighted that the works he loved, those of mythical battles and ghouls, had finally been recognized as great art. Political coverage, he said, was “just an Italian problem.”
Other fantasy aficionados agreed. “I don’t understand why it’s demonized here,” said Mattia Moruzzi, who loaned the exhibition a “Lord of the Rings” movie poster signed by the actors.
He wore a “Lord of the Rings” style ring on a chain around his neck. His girlfriend, with whom he lived in Bologna in a deconsecrated church filled with memories, wore an Evenstar elven pendant in her neckline. The show, he said, was a watershed moment. “It was legitimized.”
More than that, on Wednesday night it seemed obligatory to watch. At the end of the night, the country’s powerful economy minister, Giancarlo Giorgetti, received a personal visit from Mr. Sangiuliano, who, after Mr. Giorgetti stopped to play pinball, insisted that they take a photo in front of a backlit drawing of archers.
“I always work with terribly real things, like money,” Mr. Giorgetti said as he left. “It’s a dive into fantasy.”
But in Ms. Meloni’s Italy, the exposure was also very real.
As the last of the ministers left and the young people on the right greeted each other with ancient Roman handshakes, Cristiana Collu, the museum director, nervously asked a colleague how the evening had gone. He assured her that everything had gone well.
When asked by a reporter what exhibit previously occupied the space, the museum employee paused.
“Picasso,” he said.