The nightmarish visions of Dante Alighieri, with their many circles of hell, ringed in blood and fire, would seem perhaps a natural draw for politicians who traffic in the rhetoric of us versus them, good versus evil. But this doesn’t fully explain why the poet—who, after all, lived and wrote 700 years ago—finds himself quoted and adored like a medieval poster boy by Italy’s newly resurgent extreme right.
For Giorgia Meloni, the first prime minister since World War II to lead a party rooted in Italy’s fascist past, Dante has become a patron saint. In one video from early in her run for office, she intoned three verses from the Divine Comedy, gushing about the author as “authentically Italian, authentically Christian.” Dante, she declared, was no less than“the father of our identity.” Others in her coterie agree. The newly appointed Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano who, like Meloni, once belonged to a now-defunct neofascist party, said in a recent interview that he viewed Dante as “the founder of right-wing thought in our country.”
The far right didn’t bring Dante out of obscurity. He has, of course, been one of Italy’s most revered literary figures for centuries. But to understand how his veneration reached a new level, one must look to Meloni’s historical predecessors, the original fascists. It was their obsession that kicked off the current Dante craze, and the reasons behind it are threefold: a straightforwardly chauvinist claiming of the man long acknowledged as Italy’s national poet (a little like if an extreme-right British party raised the banner of Shakespeare); a belief that Dante foretold in his work the rise and necessity of a dictatorial figure; and a reading of his political and social writing through a reactionary lens.
In 1921, a year before the march on Rome that resulted in Benito Mussolini’s rise to power, some 3,000 fascist militia members, supporters of Mussolini, launched a “march on Ravenna,” during which they occupied Dante’s tomb, and eventually the whole city. The Fascist Party’s official hymn boasted about having brought to life “Alighieri’s vision,” while Mussolini’s government made the Divine Comedy a compulsory read in all Italian high schools and encouraged propaganda that compared the leader to the poet. The regime even planned the construction of a monument called the Danteum, though it was never built.
The idea of Dante as a father of the Italian nation gained traction in the 19th century, when intellectuals began to harbor aspirations of a united country for the then-divided peninsula. “Italy had a weak identity; it needed a unifying figure, and Dante was ideal,” Stefano Jossa, a fellow in Italian studies at the Royal Holloway University, in London, told me. Nineteenth-century nationalists, who were at the time resisting Austrian rule, were drawn to Dante, he said, because they saw in him a persecuted rebel, a reflection, they liked to think, of themselves. (Dante had held office in his native Florence from 1295 to 1302, even serving in the city’s top governing body, until his faction lost and he was exiled.)