Why Do Fascists Love Dante?

Italy’s far right has misguidedly claimed the medieval poet as one of its own for more than a century.

collage of Giorgia Meloni, Dante, Mussolini
Hulton Archive / Getty; Print Collector / Getty; Stefano Guidi / Getty; The Atlantic

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.)

Jossa also noted that nationalists saw Dante as the father of the Italian language. He was part of a group of poets who popularized writing in Italian (or Volgare, as it was then called) rather than in Latin. The poet even expressed a genuine, if vague, sense of Italian identity in his writing: In the Divine Comedy, he refers to “abject Italy, you inn of sorrows” and “that fair land where is heard.” According to Jossa, Dante was already “part of a national mythology … and fascism appropriated this.”

But fascists, unlike 19th-century nationalists, didn’t think of Dante just as a symbol of national identity; they saw him as an oracle of their authoritarian rule. In the last canto of “Purgatorio,” Beatrice prophesies the coming of a savior, whom fascists interpreted as Il Duce. And in an essay called “On Monarchy,” Dante supported the idea of a Christian nation united under a secular monarch, which greatly appealed to fascists, according to Nicolò Crisafi, a professor of Italian literature at Cambridge and an expert on Dante.

The Divine Comedy was also weaponized by Mussolini in pursuit of some of his most nefarious policies. When his regime approved the Racial Laws, legislation that persecuted Jews and stripped them of their civil rights, it cited two verses from “Paradiso” in its anti-Semitic propaganda. The lines “be men, and not like sheep gone mad, so that / the Jew who lives among you not deride you!” were printed on the cover of the propagandistic journal La Difesa Della Razza in 1939. (Less than a year ago, Meloni referred to one of this journal’s editors, Giorgio Almirante, as “a great politician,” although she denounced the Racial Laws.)

To the relief of many of Dante’s admirers, scholars tend to agree that fascists’ attempts to use him for their political agendas were more a matter of projection than based on any truth about the great poet. According to Crisafi, although Dante ascribed to certain conservative beliefs, on other issues, “he was rather progressive, at least for his time.” Crisafi believes, for instance, that Dante saw homosexuality as a “redeemable sin,” given that, in the Divine Comedy, the sodomites could end up in purgatory, not necessarily just in hell. And the verses of “Paradiso” fascists used to justify their anti-Semitism are generally interpreted as an exhortation to Christians against moral decline, and not really as an attack on Jews.

As for Dante’s explicitly political writing, reading it through a totalitarian lens is manifestly disingenuous. What was perceived in Mussolini’s time as Dante’s longing for a single, divinely appointed ruler doesn’t map onto the modern notion of the strongman leader. Dante lived at a moment of upheaval, in an Italy that was “torn by constant war,” Crisafi told me. His yearning for a powerful  leader was actually a desire for “universal peace.” Reading Dante as a symbol of nationalism is misleading, too, as the very concept of a nation as we know it would have been alien to Dante, according to Jossa, who put it this way: “He lived in an entirely different historical period and cannot be assimilated to any contemporary political ideology.”

In the years since World War II, Italy’s far right has adopted other literary heroes. Julius Evola, a fascist philosopher who supported Mussolini but wasn’t particularly influential under his rule, became a favorite of neofascists in the 1950s, and is today experiencing a resurgence among far-right movements in the United States and elsewhere. Ezra Pound, the American poet and a staunch supporter of Mussolini, was also a hero for these postwar reactionaries. Alongside these cultural touchstones, one should also add J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In the 1970s, the book became a source of inspiration for younger members of the neofascist party born after World War II, who found Tolkien’s anti-modern, traditionalist perspectives and his clear delineation of good and evil appealing.

But as Meloni began to establish herself as a political leader, around 2019, her far-right movement needed a cultural north star that was less niche—and less politically extremist—than Pound and Evola. It also sought a figure who, unlike Tolkien, was Italian. So, betraying a certain lack of imagination, the faction simply reverted to Dante. “The appropriation of Dante stems from the lack of a strong culture on the Italian right,” Jossa told me. “They need symbols. It compensates for the absence of a real cultural project.”