Certosa di Trisulti and Steve Bannon: The Controversial Lease of a Public Cultural Heritage Site

Posted on: January 31, 2020 by

The History of Certosa di Trisulti

The Certosa di Trisulti (Image @Francorov via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0)

Certosa di Trisulti is a historic building in Collepardo, a small town in the Southern Latium, where Pope Innocenzo III founded its eponymous chartherhouse in 1204. It contains precious artworks and a pharmacy dating back to the 17th century. It was declared a National Monument in 1879.

Recent Developments

In 2015 the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, Activities and Tourism (MiBACT) issued a call for tenders for leasing Public Land with reference to 13 Public Cultural Heritage sites, including said Certosa. The sites were chosen amongst those which were, at that moment, neglected, either by being in need of conservation works or simply closed.

In order to be eligible for the tender, candidates had to demonstrate their capacity as an association or a nonprofit foundation, with relevant minimum experience of 5 years in the field of promotion and protection of cultural heritage. In addition, candidates had to submit a project for restoration and promotion of the building, together with a programme for public visits. A financial institution was also required to certify the economic viability of the operation.

On  the 14th of February 2018, the Dignitatis Humanae Institute (DHI) founded by Benjamin Harnwell, known for his close association to Steve (or Stephen) Bannon, won the bid, getting the grant of the charterhouse. DHI’s mission statement is enshrined in their motto ‘[d]efending the Judaeo-Christian foundations of Western Civilisation through the recognition that Man is made in the Image and Likeness of God’.

The Controversy

The first problems arose in May 2019, when the Italian press reported that the scope of DHI was to create a school to educate the ruling class members of ‘The Movement’, an organisation founded by Steve Bannon.

In August 2019 MiBACT investigated the matter and concluded that the aforementioned necessary eligibility requirements had not been met by DHI. This was primarily due to its lack of status as an established legal entity as well as the absence of promotion and protection of cultural heritage within its institutional scope, not to mention its inexperience in the field. Moreover, DHI had not honoured its rent payments and had also not fulfilled its duties regarding the maintenance and surveillance of the building. As a result, Dario Franceschini, the Minister of Culture, decided to revoke the grant given to DHI, further justifying his decision by stating that the main priority was to protect the cultural heritage site and that political issues had not been taken into account.

Wishing to keep its grant, DHI filed a lawsuit in the Administrative Regional Court (TAR) of Lazio.

The Interim Injunction

The Administrative Court granted a temporary suspension of the ministerial decision revoking the grant, until it would be in a position to reach a final judgement on the matter.

This interim injunction was assessed on the grounds of fumus boni iuris, meaning there is prima facie evidence of the claimant’s merit in the matter, and periculum in mora, which considers the risk of imminent damages or losses arising from the delay needed to adjudicate the matter.

Both of these are quite a delicate area in Italian administrative law, as balance is required between public and private interests. According to the interpretation traditionally upheld by the courts, public interest, which represents the interests of the community, would normally prevail in a situation such as this.

However, the interim injunction granted in this case would seem to suggest that private interests can also, at least sometimes, prevail, thus making one wonder whether the courts might be departing towards a different trend in the administrative jurisprudence.

The next hearing on this case has been scheduled for the 11th of March 2020, when a final ruling will be given.