Table of Contents
This is going to be long one.
A couple of weeks ago I went to an exhibition in Rome, at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art (GNAM). The exhibition was titled "Tolkien. Man, Professor, Author" and it was aimed (according to the gallery's website) to honor Tolkien on the 50th annyversary of his death. This is not an isolated celebration of course (as many events have taken place across the world, first and foremost in Oxford), but the way the exhibition was framed it is quite problematic.
I was personally aware of the exhibition, but not (my bad) of the debate that its organization has generated across Italian politicians, journalists, and literate world. I knew it was a government-sponsored event, but I naively didn't make any connection between that fact and the exhibition content. Also, apparently among all the other exhibition celebrating Tolkien, this was the only one so heavily sponsored by a government in charge.
DISCLAIMER: This is not intended as a write-up/synopsis of the entire situation. It's just a brief background and my impressions. Anyone who wants more details is welcomed to take a look at the references section at the end.
Background: Tolkien in Italy, the Far-Right, and the current problems #
The issue we have in Italy is that Tolkien has been perceived (and appropriated) in two weird ways: a conservative author and an "author for the right parties". Both of them are absurd statements.
According to our current minister of culture, Gennaro Sangiuliano:
He (Tolkien, ed.) was a convinced Catholic who extolled the value of tradition, community and history to which one belongs, a true conservative, one might say.
Let's remember these words for later.
To start, while Tolkien was a conservative in some of his ways and for the time he was living into, this definition flatten any complexity shown by the man throughout his life and his works. I am not a scholar of Tolkien, but there are more expert people saying this (links are unfortunately in Italian). The "conservative" label serves the right-wing to strengthen their supposed appropriation of a much, much, much more complex author.
Second point: there are some reasons why Tolkien is perceived as some sort of reference figure from the right, and why he is considered a "right-adjacent" (ugh!) author from the left parties. Paraphrasing Wu Ming 4 (IT), Tolkien was introduced in our country by intellectuals close to the right and to the neo-fascist far-right. Around that time, the young members of the neo-fascist party MSI (direct heir of Mussolini's PFR) were trying to break away from their older leadership by refusing most the contemporary values, and found in Tolkien's books (especially the Hobbits and the Shire) some sort of identification for their collective experiences (more info on this on GIAP (IT)). At the end of the '70s, some of these experiences were channelled in the creation of the so-called "Hobbit Camps". This, coupled with a general preconception about fantasy by the left (IT) (sometimes still present, btw) together with an underestimation of Tolkien's work (IT), led to this ill-conception of the author as "right-adjacent" (again, sorry international friends, I know how absurd this sounds).
Giorgia Meloni (our current prime minister) while not directly involved in the MSI experiences mentioned above, is highly influenced at least by a specific reading of Tolkien's works (she also participated in a revival of Hobbit Camps). As already highlighted, this reading emphasize the saga of as an allegory for a "pure" population besieged by a foreign threat (rings a bell?). Meloni heavily referenced Tolkien and LOTR universe as part of her campaigns/propaganda, as widely reported also by the international press [Link 1, Link 2, Link 3], together with a more general effort by the far-right to control italian cultural scene [e.g. Link 1 and Link 2]. Moreover, we all remember how the actor Pino Insegno, the italian voice of Aragorn, introduced Meloni at the Fratelli D'Italia national gathering in 2022, mimicking Aragorn's speech in front of the gates of Mordor (The Return of the King).
An summary of all this stories and with a good amount of references is also available in English on the Tribune (by Angelo Boccato).
It is not a surprise then if the words with which Sangiuliano introduced the exhibition were the ones we saw at the beginning. In other interviews regarding the topics, he also stated that (the following are translated from GIAP):
I think his (Tolkien, ed.) work opens the heart to the vision of something beyond the prosaic nature of the everyday. Universal and timeless symbols, values that whisper within us. Tolkien sums it all up with a famous phrase in The Lord of the Rings: 'Deep roots do not freeze'
These values are again:
They are universal and are powerful values: friendship, community, courage and solidarity
Needless to say, this is reductive as hell, considering the amount of studies, conferences, scholars dedicated to Tolkien's work.
The results: the exhibition as a political statement #
So how was the actual exhibition?
Let's start with the actual location: the GNAM is a beautiful building, but it seems it's made so that one would inevitably be lost inside it. It was my first time there (not a great fan of modern art, sorry), and while amazed by the building, the place is a labyrinth with zero-to-no directions to the actual sections. Thank god I had someone that already went through the ordeal who guided me (I am trying very hard not to make any LOTR reference here). No clear indication where present to indicate where the temporary exhibition was, but thankfully the staff was also helpful in that instance.
The exhibition was organized in a series of not-necessarily subsequent room, and I have to say that I almost exited the exhibition by chance at least twice. There was also no indication that the exhibition occupied a second floor as well. Stairs were not illuminated or indicated, and we actually had to go back after coming outside because we totally missed it.
Content-wise, the exhibition had a lot of stuff, mostly about Tolkien's life in the first couple of rooms, and then focusing on the LOTR universe for the rest. Sounds intriguing until one realize that, especially in the second section of the exhibition, there was no logical ordering of the pieces, no real description or explanation about what they were and what link they had with the exhibition theme (as another visitor noted, there was "A bunch of stuff signed Tolkien"). At the upper floor there was a series of Middle-Earth-inspired drawings, that were just thrown in your face without a logical sequence, no description, no idea of why they were chosen (some of them where definitely cool, but generally I hope it was not the main reason for including them).
Given how much exhibitions are now focusing on the immersion of the public, interactivity and things like that, this one felt like a giant missed opportunity, and I am not the only one saying this. It is definitely weird to read Meloni's talking about an exhibition that was "complete and very much alive". The last room was the one most connected to the cinematic universe, but again, it felt like a collection of objects that had no real connection with the exhibition theme. Of course, there was an installation where you could hear Pino Insegno reading LOTR (see above). Some of the stuff was nice and geeky, but again, what they were trying to show and say? It felt like we were watching a room where someone asked an amateur collector to bring his pieces over, and not a government-sponsorded, 250.000 euro-expensive, exhibition.
The editorial history of Tolkien's book in Italy, on the other hand, was also relegated in a small hidden room at the second floor, but was arguably the most interesting part of the exhibition, again, a huge pity.
Considering again the exhibition title "Tolkien. Man, Professor, Author", at the GNAM it felt like there was a lot of the man, something of the professor, and random stuff about the author. Most importantly, it is what and how much of the man was presented that was problematic. On the note of Sangiuliano's words before, Tolkien was represented as a flat figure, with notes and text heavily focusing on his religion, his mother who (almost actual words) "died breaking her back so that he could be raised as a proper catholic", his family and how much he loved them, how much of a hardworker and religious man he was, a dedicated professor but a lovely father, and so on. Note, nothing of this is "untrue" or in any way a bad thing (considering the period), but clearly these parts were predominant throughout the first two-three rooms, reducing the complexity of one the brightest minds of the last century to a few basic elements. It was clearly the intention of the organizers/patrons to focus on this stuff, which is unsurprising. The texts reeked in far-right propaganda about 'God, Fatherland, Family'. There was, of course, much less ink spent on the professor/writer parts, with panels completely absent once entering the Middle-Earth universe section of the exhibition, and just a portrait gallery of some of his literary friends. Also, this might be just me, but as an academic the way in which Tolkien was presented as a professor felt like a normalization of overwork, which is again in line with what our ministries think of the work environment.
Just to make an unfair comparison, on the same night we watched also Tolkien, the biographical movie. Of course, the goals, timing and medium is completely different from the exhibition, but the movie was able to show more about the character than the actual exhibition, even hinting at some issues of life-work balance in the last scenes. If you want something about Tolkien, honestly just watch that and don't come to Rome for the exhibition.
I'll conclude by borrowing (and translating) the words of Alessia de Antoniis on her piece on Exibart, with which I wholeheartedly agree:
Tolkien was a writer, philologist, linguist, and also university lecturer at Oxford. He created artificial languages. He was passionate about fantastic literature and Norse mythology. His stories tell of an imaginary world, populated by humans, elves, dwarves, hobbits and other fantastic creatures. Tolkien is one of the fathers of modern fantasy literature and one of the greatest writers of the 20th century. His works have inspired films, role-playing games, cartoons. With such a legacy, nothing better could have been built than a string of display cases with inanimate books and drawings lined up on the walls? Today, when the most successful exhibitions, which attract adults, children and young people, which bring new generations closer to culture, are those that catapult the visitor into the virtual world, have we managed to waste so much material for nothing?
The opening was a beautiful Christmas pageant full of institutional figures in great splendour. Among many, unfortunately, there was one great absent: J.R.R. Tolkien, his great art, his powerful wizards, his extraordinary mythological figures and his entire world populated by magical figures. Missing from this exhibition is Tolkien's sense of adventure, his interest in medieval history, myths, legends. There is no trace of the genius and originality of an immense author who inspired generations of artists and readers. What is missing is the life that is present in every single page he wrote and that the curators of this exhibition have not been able to revive despite all the technology we have available today. A great missed opportunity to revive Tolkien, who here lies submerged in the dust of an empty and stale culture.
Back to main text