On the opening night of Rome’s most talked-about new exhibition this week, top government ministers in sharp suits hobnobbed with Roman socialites in fur coats, and eccentric art lovers rubbed shoulders with hard-right youth group members.
They all contemplated a drawing of a glam-rock Gandalf in a form-fitting wizard’s cloak, acrylic armies of orcs and other works of fan art displayed in gilded frames. On one wall, they studied a family tree of elves, men and dwarves; on another, a glossary explaining the protagonists of Middle-earth (“Hobbits are a unique and distinct people known as Halflings.”) They stepped over an interactive map on the floor featuring Frodo and his companions coasting on a floating green saucer.
Some were enthusiastic, others bewildered. But if there was any question why Italy’s Culture Ministry had staged a major retrospective dedicated to the life, academic career, and literary works of J.R.R. Tolkien, the British author of “The Lord of the Rings,” at the National Gallery of Modern and Contemporary Art, a marquee space usually dedicated to modernist masters, and why everyone seemingly just had to be there, one superfan held the answer.
“I found the exhibition very beautiful,” Giorgia Meloni, the prime minister, said after her personal tour of “Tolkien: Man, Professor, Author.” “As a person who knows the issue pretty well, I found many things I didn’t know.”
Most people know Tolkien’s books as bedtime stories or fantasy epics. But for Ms. Meloni and others who grew up in a post-Fascist universe that could not publicly look to the recent Italian past for heroes, Tolkien’s adventures — tales of warriors, invading armies and everyday folk defending their homelands — supplied a safe space to articulate their worldview. They dressed in character. They sang along with the extremist folk band Fellowship of the Ring at jamborees of right-wing youth called Camp Hobbit.
Now as Ms. Meloni, 46, has moved from the political margins of her youth to the center of Italian political life, that esoteric subculture has followed her up to Italy’s temples of high art. At a meeting of the prime minister’s party leaders this summer, the culture minister, Gennaro Sangiuliano, called the show a “gift.” He has said Tolkien was a major literary figure who deserved a major show marking the 50th anniversary of his death. Ms. Meloni’s critics have instead characterized the exhibit, which she called “a beautiful page of culture,” as a right-wing counteroffensive in the country’s culture wars.
Shortly after she left the museum, visitors entered her fantasyland. Adjacent to a permanent collection with Italian masterpieces, the exhibition showcased Tolkien’s private letters and possessions along with archival photos of him smoking his pipe and wearing tweed suits as a professor at Oxford, and posing in a monastery on vacation in Italy.
Displayed behind vitrines were a collection of hobbit-themed music, including Leonard Nimoy’s “The Ballad of Bilbo Baggins,” a “Lord of the Rings” pinball machine, posters from the movies, stills and sketches from the cartoons, and hobbit sculptures.
Clerics in cloaks compared their hoods with costumes on display.
“It’s particular,” said Paola Comin, a veteran of the Italian film industry, who wore a white fur coat.
She walked by Maurizio Gasparri, a former minister and a right-wing ally of Ms. Meloni, who was eager to demonstrate his deep “Lord of the Rings” knowledge.
“Ask around who knows the names of the nine companions of the ring, see who responds,” he said, naming all nine. He added that when it came to Tolkien, “the right chose him as its go-to author.”
The show was intended to transmit that tradition, said members of the youth wing of Ms. Meloni’s far-right Brothers of Italy party, who were there, too.
“It’s an inheritance,” said Andrea Paramano, a 21-year-old member, as he stood with his friends around models of the Shire and epic battles with Balrog, the fire monster. “It gets passed down. The respect of the tradition ——”
“The courage,” interrupted Gabriele Rosa, also 21 and a fellow member, though he said that young activists preferred to read about real-life heroes of the post-Fascist movement, who became martyrs during the domestic terrorism of the 1970s. “Until death.”
The night in many ways belonged to the minister of culture, Mr. Sangiuliano, a former right-leaning journalist, who led his colleagues around the exhibit. He marched with the confidence of a man who had absolute power over the destinies of some of the country’s museum directors, including the art historian who runs the museum where the exhibit was staged, and whose term is up soon
At a news conference announcing the exhibit earlier in the month, Mr. Sangiuliano insisted Ms. Meloni did not order the show up, and responded to a question about the right wing’s love of “The Lord of the Rings” by talking about the ignorance of journalists, the Indo-European roots of the word “conservatism,” the symbolism of fire, the innovations of Ronald Reagan and Winston Churchill, and the anti-colonialism of Charles de Gaulle.
“And Frodo?” a reporter asked.
At the museum, he continued to insist there was nothing partisan about the exhibit. He pointed out a wall featuring blurbs from fans of the writer, including Ringo Starr, Nicolas Cage and Barack Obama, who a ministry spokesman insisted was a “Tolkienian.”
Mr. Obama was quoted in the exhibit as saying he had moved on from the Hardy Boys to “‘The Lord of the Rings’ and ‘The Hobbit’ and stuff like that,” and that they “weren’t just adventure stories, but they were also stories that taught me about social problems.”
(The correct quote, by Mr. Obama from an interview with children reporters from Scholastic News, notes that when he was about 13 years old, he started reading “more serious books,” like “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “that made you think a little bit more. They weren’t just kind of adventure stories, but they were also, you know, stories that taught me about social problems.”)
“All readers of Tolkien,” Mr. Sangiuliano said proudly at the show. He then caught sight of another Tolkien enthusiast, Francesco Lollobrigida, Ms. Meloni’s brother-in-law and the hard-right agriculture minister. He showed him the fan art, and on the stairs, the two stopped to read an excerpt from Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.”
Davide Martini, the curator and owner of the exhibit’s fan art, was nonplussed as he watched all the attention around the politicians. A proud metalhead, he said he grew up in a room with walls covered in Tolkien calendars and the works of Frank Frazetta, who is often called the godfather of fantasy art.
Mr. Martini was delighted that the works he loved, of mythical battles and ghouls, had finally been recognized as great art. The political overlay, he said, was “only an Italian problem.”
Other fantasy aficionados agreed. “I don’t understand why it is demonized here,” said Mattia Moruzzi, who lent a “Lord of the Rings” movie poster signed by cast members to the exhibit.
He wore a “Lord of the Rings”-style ring on a chain around his neck. His girlfriend, with whom he lived in Bologna in a deconsecrated church filled with memorabilia, wore an elven Evenstar pendant in her décolletage. The show, he said, was a watershed moment. “It has been legitimized.”
More than that, on Wednesday night, it appeared to be required viewing. At the end of the night, the country’s powerful economy minister, Giancarlo Giorgetti, received a personal tour from Mr. Sangiuliano, who, after Mr. Giorgetti stopped to play pinball, insisted they take a picture in front of a backlit drawing of archers.
“I’m always working with awfully real things, like money,” Mr. Giorgetti said as he left. “This is a dive into fantasy.”
But in Ms. Meloni’s Italy, the exhibit was also very real.
As the last of the ministers left, and the right-wing youth saluted one another with ancient Roman forearm handshakes, Cristiana Collu, the museum director, nervously asked a colleague how the evening went. He assured her it went fine.
Asked by a reporter what exhibit previously occupied the space, the museum worker paused.
“Picasso,” he said.