Photo Credit: Thor Brødreskift/Nordiske Mediedager/Wikimedia Commons


Steve Bannon would have you believe he’s a “gladiator,” but his exploits in Rome suggest a more apt historical analogy: clearly he is a Romantic.

In August 2020, Bannon was arrested and charged with fraud for his involvement in the mismanagement of a crowdsourced fund to build President Trump’s border wall. Trump, of course, soon enough pardoned him in the United States. But Bannon’s problems with misrepresentation aren’t limited to the U.S. 

In Italy, also in August of last year, the center-left daily newspaper La Repubblica reported that the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI), led by the British Conservative Benjamin Harnwell, had attested to its financial viability with a forged letter. At the time, Bannon was collaborating with Harnwell to turn the Abbey of Trisulti, a 13th-century Carthusian monastery sixty miles outside of Rome, into a DHI academy for training future European populist politicians. Both Harnwell and Bannon dismissed the story in La Repubblica as “fake news.” But on March 15, the Italian Council of State found that the DHI had indeed misrepresented its qualifications to lease and maintain the Abbey. Bannon and Harnwell will have to find new digs — though in Bannon’s words, they “refuse to be stopped.”   

The fight of the Anglo-American duo for the Italian monastery illuminates the broader historical stakes of their project. After all, it’s not the first time that a cadre of nationalist culture warriors couldn’t resist the lure of Catholic Rome.

In the first third of the nineteenth century, the city attracted similar figures from German-speaking Europe. To be sure, they were not financiers or political strategists; they were Romantic artists. But their parallels to Bannon, Harnwell, and the DHI help make sense of Bannon’s cultural politics, especially in the post-Trump era.

In 1810, after Napoleon had arrived in Vienna, Franz Pforr and Friedrich Overbeck traded the Academy of Fine Arts for a vacant Franciscan monastery just south of the Villa Borghese. They and four others constituted the Brotherhood of St. Luke (Lukasbund), an informal federation of artists devoted to “truth.” For another two decades, German artists flocked to Rome and collaborated on cultural policy with this quasi-monastic community. They revived the art of fresco painting, organized lectures, wrote histories, and socialized with German diplomats and Catholic prelates. Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld, who arrived in 1818, hoped there would come a day when the German artist need not sojourn in Rome. Until that day, he would be a prophet without honor in his own land. Indeed, the Romantic painters stylized themselves as old German pilgrim-prophets.

Strange though it may seem, there was a logic to their conjunction of nationalism and Catholicism. For one thing, they opposed Napoleonic France and its secularizing tendencies. Some of the painters, like Philipp Veit, even fought in the Wars of Liberation. Thus, in a strange juxtaposition, these Catholic artists cheered from Rome when they learned of their compatriots’ nationalist festival at the Wartburg (1817), a castle whose symbolic force derived from Luther’s time in its walls.

This was not the only instance of Romantic Germans’ curious relation to the past. They asserted audacious claims to Rome and Roman culture on the basis of Germans’ position in the Holy Roman Empire. Carolsfeld maintained that the “true Rome” belonged to Germans, not Italians. Peter Cornelius reckoned that Dante was more German than Italian; the spirit of the Divine Comedy was “thoroughly medieval German.” Unsurprisingly, it was deemed a bit of a coup in German-speaking lands when a team of Germans was contracted in 1817 to paint frescoes of scenes from Italian poetry in the Villa Massimo (today that villa is home to the Deutsche Akademie). The painters’ achievements on Italian soil won them visits from Prince Ludwig of Bavaria and Kaiser Franz I of Austria.

To many contemporaries, the Romantics’ religiosity warranted scrutiny. Heine bemoaned that droves of German writers and painters “abjured reason” and “queued up to push their way into the old dungeon of the soul,” i.e. the Roman Catholic Church. He chalked it up to the propaganda of Romanticism. The mature Goethe characterized Romanticism as an illness (albeit one he himself had once contributed to, as witnessed in the runaway success of his romantic youthful novella Sufferings of the Young Werther). In his journal of art Goethe published a scathing critique of the Romantic circle in Rome; it hinged on the view that these artists practiced a “phony piety.”

That may have been harsh, but it pointed to something central: whatever the depth of their faith, it was anything but naïve. Indeed, these Romantics’ piety was extraordinarily stylized. They painted their own portraits into historical and biblical scenes. They occupied a monastery, wore cassocks, and grew long hair, earning the mock-epithet Nazarenes, by which we know them today. Their striking appearance won them a cameo in George Eliot’s Middlemarch. Their Catholicism, in short, was meticulously curated to project an image of cultural defiance.

The precarious enterprise of Bannon and Harnwell in Rome may not bespeak the whole of German Romanticism, but it recalls this strange Roman chapter. Not just because they wish to set up camp in an Italian monastery; nor because they purport their rights to occupy Italian landmarks; nor because, as Bannon describes him on the DHI website, Harnwell “comes across as a monk”; nor because their long, slicked hair might have been in vogue among the Nazarenes. These are all mere symptoms of a larger dynamic that operates in both historical moments: namely, an instrumentalization of Catholic aesthetics to dress up an otherwise nakedly identitarian project.

For many German Romantics, the instrumentalization of Catholic and Christian aesthetics helped to shore up and define a powerful model of (nascent) national identity. Friedrich Schlegel theorized a new Dantean mythology that would unite German poets in a common culture. Achim von Arnim and Clemens Brentano, early propagators of Volkspoesie, formed the Christian-German Table Society as an organ to marginalize Jews. The Nazarenes, yoking their art to national-religious ideals, gave stylistic legitimacy to acts of translatio imperii. It is no accident that, a century later, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus held the Romantic infatuation with myth and religion culpable for Germany’s sins. Indeed, much of Romanticism was well esteemed by National Socialists. The Nazis’ book burnings, after all, had an important precedent: the Wartburg Festival.    

Like the German Romantics in Rome, Bannon and Harnwell are probably not “faking” their Catholicism, but there is little doubt that their stylization of it is serving other ends as well. The DHI sets itself apparently lofty, Catholic goals for the preservation of human dignity, but it is clear from its Universal Declaration that the Institute’s vision of human dignity is incompatible with multicultural democracy. It is aiming ultimately to shore up a profoundly exclusionary vision of Western-Catholic identity, as some Catholics have already recognized.

That is a curious — or, from another angle, predictable — enterprise during the pontificate of Francis. Not only has the first pontiff from the Global South come to the defense of democracy in recent years; his recent encyclical, Fratelli Tutti, warned against a populism that is predicated on a people that is not “open-ended” and able to “welcome differences.” That puts Bannon and Harnwell at odds with the Pope. Even archconservative critics of Francis, like Cardinal Raymond Burke, have withdrawn their support for the DHI (albeit in the case of the latter, it was chalked up to Bannon’s readiness to finance a film on homosexuality in the Vatican). 

Where Bannon, Harnwell, and the DHI go from here is uncertain. But one thing remains clear: the culture war is as much a battle of images as it is of ideas. On that score, Bannon is an inveterate Romantic.  

Daniel DiMassa is an assistant professor of German at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, where he co-directs the Berlin Project Center.