An Open Letter in Support of Luciano Canfora

introduction by Pierre Vesperini

Donato Fasano/Getty Images

Luciano Canfora arriving at court with his lawyer, Michele Laforgia, for a preliminary hearing, having been accused of defamation by Italy’s prime minister, Bari, Italy, April 16, 2024

Italy’s prime minister, Giorgia Meloni, has sued Luciano Canfora, an eighty-one-year-old historian, philologist, and professor emeritus at the University of Bari, for aggravated defamation (diffamazione aggravata). The preliminary hearing took place yesterday.

The case dates back two years, to when Meloni was an opposition parliamentarian and the leader of the Fratelli d’Italia (Brothers of Italy) party. Professor Canfora is the acclaimed author of dozens of books and a famous public figure. Invited to speak at a local high school as part of a discussion of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, he made the following comment about Meloni’s position on the political spectrum: 

Even the very terrible and always reviled, poor thing, leader of that right-wing party called Fratelli d’Italia (as if in France there was a political party called La Marseillaise)—who is usually treated as a lunatic, very dangerous, etc., because being a neo-Nazi in her soul, she immediately sided with the Ukrainian neo-Nazis [he later clarified he was referring to the far-right Azov Brigade]—has become a very important stateswoman and is more than happy of course in that role. She is not part of the current majority but is a very convenient external pawn to show that the country is united.

Meloni immediately protested that she would sue Professor Canfora for defamation—above all for having called her a “neo-Nazi,” which according to the complaint “is apt to distort and falsify her political identity.” On July 5, 2022, she did. Having become Italy’s prime minister that October, she did not withdraw her complaint, which makes this trial an unprecedented event in Western Europe’s democratic history: it is the first time that a serving prime minister has dragged a scholar to court.

On April 9 the French newspaper Libération published the open letter translated below, signed by more than eighty scholars, publishers, and journalists defending Luciano Canfora’s right to free speech. Within a few days the list of signatories, which is still open, included more than a thousand people from all over the world. On April 16, at the end of the preliminary hearing, Judge Antonietta Guerra decided that the trial would take place. It will open this year on October 7. —Pierre Vesperini

For Italy, for Europe, Let Us Defend Freedom of Thought

At a time when academic freedom is under threat throughout the world, we, historians, philologists, philosophers, publishers, and journalists, would like to alert public opinion to an extremely serious matter that has not yet been reported in the French press.

On April 16 a trial will take place in Bari that is without precedent in Europe since 1945. The historian Luciano Canfora, one of Italy’s greatest intellectuals, is being sued for defamation, at the age of eighty-one, by none other than the head of the government, Giorgia Meloni.

The charges against him are as follows: two years ago, during a conference at a secondary school, Mr. Canfora described Ms. Meloni as a “neo-Nazi at heart” (neonazista nell’animo). He was referring to the fact that the party she leads, Fratelli d’Italia, has its historical origins in the Republic of Salò (1943–1945), a kind of Nazi protectorate governed by Mussolini as a Gauleiter of the Third Reich, which brought a regime of terror to Northern Italy that Italians commonly refer to as Nazifascism. 

There’s no denying this connection. In fact Fratelli d’Italia still flies the tricolour of the Italian Social Movement (MSI), which echoes the official name of the Republic of Salò: Italian Social Republic (RSI). The party’s founder, Giorgio Almirante (1914–1988), still claimed in 1987 that fascism was the “ultimate goal” (il traguardo) of his party.

These origins have never been denied by Ms. Meloni, who recently celebrated Almirante—an editor and contributor for the racist and antisemitic magazine Difesa della razza from 1938 to 1943, then chief of staff to a Salò minister—as “a politician and a patriot…a great man we will never forget,” nor by any of the members of her party, starting with the president of the Senate, Ignazio La Russa, who boasts of having busts of Mussolini in his home.

They systematically refuse to define themselves as antifascists: it is as if, in France, a government refused to claim the heritage of the Resistance. This has led to painful scenes, such as when Mr. La Russa, on a visit to the Shoah Memorial in the company of a survivor of the camps, Senator Liliana Segre, replied to journalists who asked him if he felt “antifascist” that day: “Let’s not debase these occasions.” Ms. Meloni has never condemned recent neofascist demonstrations, including one in Rome on Via Acca Larentia, or neofascist violence such as the beating of high school students in Florence last year, and she has taken the liberty—for the first time in Italy—of criticizing the president of the Republic, the moderate Sergio Mattarella, because, in accordance with his duties as guardian of the constitution, he had protested the unprecedented violence with which the police put down pacifist student demonstrations in Pisa and Florence.


Far from the moderate image she projects on the international stage, Ms. Meloni is in fact in the process of bringing Italy to heel. She makes no secret of her intention to move the country toward the illiberal model of Poland and Hungary. “We think it’s inconceivable, but it could happen,” declared Giuliano Amato, former prime minister and president emeritus of the Constitutional Court, at the beginning of this year. Shortly afterward, and as if by chance, at the last minute the Ministry of Justice cancelled a presentation of his latest book to the inmates of a prison.

This policy has a fundamental cultural component, which goes as far as chastising a cartoon like Peppa Pig (because one episode showed a young polar bear raised by a lesbian couple). In the words of Gianmarco Mazzi, undersecretary of state for culture, the aim is to “change the country’s narrative.” All possible checks and balances are being targeted: public media, cultural institutions, presenters, investigative journalists, and, of course, intellectuals. A recent program listed an impressive number of complaints, and the list is not exhaustive: the minister of economic development, Adolfo Urso, is attacking Repubblica and the TV program Report; the minister of defense, Guido Crosetto, is attacking Domani and Il Giornale; the undersecretary of state, Giovanbattista Fazzolari, is attacking Domani, La Stampa, and Dagospia. Mrs. Meloni’s sister has also joined the party, taking legal action against a Fatto Quotidiano cartoonist. Ms. Meloni also sued Brian Molko, the lead singer of the British band Placebo. We now learn that the minister of agriculture, Francesco Lollobrigida, Ms. Meloni’s sister’s partner, is suing a philosophy professor at La Sapienza, Donatella di Cesare, as well as the rector of the University for Foreigners in Siena, Tomaso Montanari.

“They have thin skin,” quipped the Democratic Party politician Pier Luigi Bersani.

It was against this backdrop that Ms. Meloni had the great writer Roberto Saviano sentenced to €1,000 in damages (she was seeking €75,000) for daring to call her and her deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, “bastards” following the death of a baby on a migrant boat: “Giorgia Meloni considers me an enemy,” the writer explained to Libération. “Her aim and that of her associates in government is to destroy me…. They have taken speech and political criticism to court. They have forced judges to define the perimeter within which it is possible to criticise those in power.”

Mr. Canfora, who enjoys a huge reputation in his own country, is the next target. “One of Giorgia Meloni’s successes,” observed Federico Fubini of Corriere della Sera, “is that she has managed to make it almost rude to ask her what she thinks of fascism.” It was precisely this rudeness that the scholar dared to commit.

We are far from sharing all of Mr. Canfora’s political positions. We are all the freer to assert his absolute right to express them. What’s more, it’s our duty to do so. As one of the most lucid jurists of the last century, Oliver Wendell Holmes, so forcefully put it, “If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought—not free thought for those who agree with us but freedom for the thought that we hate.” Freedom for the thought that we hate: this was the title of a great book by Anthony Lewis. We urgently need to translate it.

On Tuesday, April 16, we will all be present in spirit at the court in Bari, alongside Professor Luciano Canfora. Anyone wishing to add their name to our list can write to

Grey Anderson
New York

Magali Année
Université de Lille

Corrado Augias

Vincent Azoulay
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Daniel Barbu
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Franco Basso
Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Nicole Belayche
École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris

Jean-François Bert
Université de Lausanne

Maurizio Bettini
Università degli Studi di Siena

Philippe Borgeaud
Université de Genève

Elsa Bouchard
Université de Montréal

Sylvain Brocquet
Université d’Aix-Marseille

Manon Brouillet
Université d’Amiens

Clément Bur
INU Champollion, Albi

Philippe Büttgen
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Claude Calame
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Laurent Calvié
Philologie de l’avenir

Cléo Carastro
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Johann Chapoutot
Université de la Sorbonne

Pierre Chiron
Université Paris-Est Créteil

Marie Cosnay

Jean-Michel David
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Cecilia D’Ercole
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Marie-Laurence Desclos
Université de Grenoble

Georges Didi-Huberman
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Louis-André Dorion
Université de Montréal

Gilles Dorival
Université d’Aix-Marseille

Florence Dupont
Université Paris Diderot

Pascal Engel
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Richard Figuier
Former director of publications at l’École française de Rome

Anna Foa
Sapienza Università di Roma

Jean-Luc Fournet
Collège de France, Paris

Renaud Gagné
Pembroke College, Cambridge

Anthony Grafton
Princeton University

Charles Guérin
Université de la Sorbonne

Emanuela Guidoboni
Centro EEDIS – Eventi Estremi e Disastri

François Hartog
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Miguel Herrero de Jáuregui
Université Complutense, Madrid

Leopoldo Iribarren
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Paulin Ismard
Université d’Aix-Marseille

Christian Jacob
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Pierre Judet de la Combe
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Catherine Koenig-Pralong
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Renée Koch-Piettre
École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris

André Laks
Université de la Sorbonne

Thibaud Lanfranchi
Université de Toulouse

Giuseppe Laterza
Éditions Laterza

Charles-Henri Lavielle and Frantz Olivié
Éditions Anacharsis

Constantin Macris
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Lucie Marignac
Éditions rue d’Ulm

Francesco Massa
University of Turin

José Meirinhos
University of Porto

Claudia Moatti
Université Paris 8

Marie-José Mondzain
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Philippe Moreau
Université Paris-Est Créteil

Pierre-François Moreau
École Normale Supérieure de Lyon

Alain Mothu
Université de la Sorbonne

Paolo Napoli
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Dmitri Nikulin
The New School

Robin Osborne
King’s College, Cambridge

Chloé Pathé
Éditions Anamosa

Vinciane Pirenne-Delforge
Collège de France, Paris

Sylvain Piron
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Gabriella Pironti
École Pratique des Hautes Études, Paris

Sylvie Pittia
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Michèle Planel and Pierre Audoux
Éditions Verdier

Didier Pralon
Université d’Aix-Marseille

Adriano Prosperi
École Normale Supérieure de Pise

Valentina Prosperi
Università degli Studi di Sassari

Chloé Ragazzoli
École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, Paris

Marwan Rashed
Université de la Sorbonne

Luciana Romeri
Université de Caen

Martin Rueff
Université de Genève

Rossella Saetta Cottone
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Luigi-Alberto Sanchi
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Federico Santangelo
Newcastle University

Aldo Schiavone
Sapienza Università di Roma

Alain Schnapp
Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne

Cecilia Suzzoni
Lycée Henri IV, Paris

Walter Tega
University of Bologna

Julien Théry
Université Lyon 2

Claudine Tiercelin
Collège de France, Paris

Pierre Vesperini
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Patrick Weil
Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris

Giorgio Ziffer
University of Udine


A full list of signatories can be found here.

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