When Pietrangelo Buttafuoco, the incoming new president of the Venice Biennale, was once asked in an interview whether he was a fascist, the Italian rightwing journalist and public intellectual replied: “I am not a fascist. I am something else.”
After Buttafuoco was this week officially nominated to lead the oldest and largest cultural exhibition in the world, it is not just the artists, actors, architects, film-makers, dancers and musicians whose work will be shown at the coming biennales’ six events who are asking themselves what exactly that “something else” may be.
To the far-right party of Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, the former leader of the youth wing of the neo-fascist Italian Social Movement party is an ideological ally in a battle against what it perceives to be an art establishment dominated by leftwingers. “Buttafuoco affirms a change of pace that the Meloni government wants to imprint in every cultural and social centre of the nation,” said the deputy parliamentary leader of Meloni’s Brothers of Italy party, rejoicing at the appointment.
Curators who have worked on previous iterations of the biennale, meanwhile, fear the 60-year-old’s appointment could follow a pattern familiar from Poland or Hungary, where rightwing populist governments have drafted in ideologically aligned polemicists.
It is possible that Buttafuoco, who will not take over from the current president, Roberto Cicutto, until March 2024, could surprise them both.
Born and raised in Catania, Sicily, Buttafuoco was a national leader of the youth wing of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), a party established by Giorgio Almirante, who was a minister in the fascist dictator Benito Mussolini’s government. As a journalist, he began working with rightwing magazines and the then MSI newspaper, Il Secolo d’Italia.
Since then, however, he has proved an eccentric type of conservative. For one, there is his 2015 conversion to Islam. “Call me Giafar al-Siqilli,” he wrote in one of his books, in honour of the emir of Sicily. Far from an act of provocation, Buttafuoco insisted his change of faith was a reconciliation with the history of his native region. “The identity of Sicily is Islamic,” he wrote. “Every market is a casbah, every club is a transfiguration of the archaic social code, and if the principle of long duration holds, it is the Saracen that endures still.”
While there are parallels between Buttafuoco’s political trajectory and that of Meloni, their relationship has not always been idyllic. In 2015, when Buttafuoco’s name emerged as a potential candidate for governor of Sicily in the rightwing coalition, Meloni used her veto as her party’s leader in the house to block his candidacy.
She cited his conversion as the reason for her objection: “Do we realise the cultural message, even before the political one, that we would give to the world?” she said at the time. “It’s as if a Christian were to be a candidate and elected in Istanbul.”
He has spoken out against the right to bear arms, a topic dear to the Italian right, and he has in the past accused the right of being too demagogic about migrants.
Buttafuoco has remained faithful to some traditional rightwing ideas, championing Italy’s historical cultural identity and opposing political correctness, but he does not couch them in populist terms. Among the publications that regularly publish his opinions are leftwing daily Il Fatto Quotidiano and the liberal daily La Repubblica, two publications fiercely critical of Meloni, as well as the centrist daily Il Foglio and financial newspaper Il Sole 24 Ore.
Few of the previous holders of the post have been overtly political. During the 80s and 90s, the biennale was headed by a string of architects and film critics, but for the last 25 years its presidents have had a more technocratic feel: they were economists, bank managers and, in the case of Cicutto, appointed in 2020, a film producer.
Critics claim Buttafuoco’s managerial experience, including a five-year stint as president of the regional theatre Teatro Stabile di Catania and his current presidency of the Teatro Stabile d’Abruzzo, is limited.
The budgets he will have to handle with prudence during his tenure are considerable. The biennale has recently received a grant of €169m (£148m) from the Italian government and the European Union to carry out major repair works to the Arsenale exhibition space in Venice’s former shipyards and relocate its archive.
How much time that leaves for Buttafuoco to imprint any kind of ideological vision on the festival at all remains to be seen. While the biennale president appoints the artistic curators that set the themes of each of the festival’s disciplines, the national pavilions that attract most of the attention are curated autonomously.
One of the Italian right’s bugbears has been the conversion of the Italian-themed neoclassical palazzo inside the Giardini park into a central pavilion showcasing international artists, and the Italian pavilion’s relegation to the Arsenale venue. Some curators fear that Buttafuoco, spurred on by the Meloni administration’s infatuation with “Italian-ness”, could reverse that decision.
Others hope the new president will prove enough of a free thinker to resist a narrowing of the institution’s appeal. Francesco Rutelli, the former centre-left mayor of Rome and current president of Italy’s cinema association Anica, said the biennale’s historical strength was its role as an instrument of freedom. “I am certain that Buttafuoco, a free spirit, will be able to continue this and interpret it in the best way.”
Contacted by the Guardian for an interview, Buttafuoco said: “Not now. Let’s talk when the appointment, God willing, becomes official next March.”