Is Italy's Art Heritage going to the Dogs?

POMPEII, ITALY - NOVEMBER 14:  Works in progre...POMPEII, ITALY - Works in progress at the House of Faun on November 14, 2010..Image by Getty Images via @daylife

Italy is the cradle of European art and with 45 registered UNESCO heritage sites, it has more than any other country in the world.  While Italy seems unable to look after it properly, we probably shouldn't accuse it of negligence: there are more archeological sites, monuments, artworks and museums here than anywhere else, surely more than the Italian people can afford to maintain.

Then there is a more insidious problem: when you have so much, you tend to believe that this abundance will always be around, and a certain amount of indifference sets in...

According to the latest comparative figures from the OECD, Italy devoted only 0.8% of its public spending to culture and leisure in 2006, putting it 22nd on a list of 27 countries for which statistics were available. Roberto Cecchi, Director-general of the Italian Culture Ministry in charge of the so-called heritage department, told the UK Guardian (see article below) that "Italy has never spent enough on culture. France and Spain spend twice as much." Yet, as he pointed out: "France has 20 national museums. Italy has 400. In France, there are 25,000 protected buildings. Here, there are between 350,000 and 400,000."

Well...of course, these are just numbers bandied about. To start with, what constitutes a "museum" and what should be preserved? But setting aside such issues, there is little doubt that Italy has more than it can handle in the art and culture department.

Last November, when the government decided as an austerity measure to cut €280 million from the culture ministry's budget from 2011 to 2014, a protest strike closed Italian museums down for one day. Not much of a protest, really. Meanwhile, walls collapsed in Pompei and some 60 sites are on Italia Nostra's red list, meaning they're about to crumble down. Even the Colosseum is at risk, and the government has called out on the private sector to help out in its restoration. Nobody responded to the call except Diego della Valle, head of the Tod's leather business, who ended up sponsoring the whole of €25 million that will be needed to restore it.

I guess we'll have a Colosseum wrapped up in a Tod's shoe until the monument is restored - and that means probably for several years...I hope you like Tod's!

Actually, half of Italy's museums are kept open thanks to private funding. Though problems occur if you try to run particularly "off" exhibitions, like on the mafia: both in Naples and Sicily, the mafia has resented the honour, threatening acts of vandalism. One private museum director in Naples decided to take refuge in Germany, saying that the Germans were far more serious about art than the Italians. Reportedly they have not (yet) cut back on their support for culture. Naturally, the Germans are notoriously serious about everything ...

In my opinion - but do let me know if you agree - it's not so much a matter of money as a management issue. The Stampa,  in a recent strongly-worded article written by Giuseppe Salvaggiulo (published February 13, 2011) is very clear on the subject: "Bell'Italia, i primi vandali siamo noi - the first vandals are us"  In it, reference is made to a book that has just come out, "Vandali. L'assalto alle bellezze italiane" (ed. Rizzoli) by two Corriere della Sera journalists, Gian Antonio Stella and Sergio Rizzo. They paint a dramatic picture, whereby Italy, over the last 30 years, has lost its primacy in international tourism, dropping to 5th place. The internet portal, which has cost millions of Euro to set up, is ranked 184,594th among the most visited sites of the planet (!). When an internet site was recently set up to promote Italy in China, the background music is not even Italian, the home page shows Bologna rather than Rome (because it was a cut-and-paste job on an Emilia-Romagna site)  and the text is often in Italian rather than English - but then, why not Chinese?

And that's only the tip of the iceberg. Maintenance is next to zero: just one example, in Pompei, maintenance workers used to be 98 fifty years ago, now they are 8. And with only one archeologist. As to the mosaic repairman, he's retired and never been replaced. And the archeological structures that could be visited back then were 64, now they are only 23. And that's just Pompei. In Selinunte, the temple of Apollo, restored eleven years ago, still cannot be visited because no one has yet taken away the scaffoldings. Fewer people visit the Riace bronzes than go to the Pistoia zoo. There is a gasifier next to Agrigento, threatening the whole site. I could go on and on, as I am sure you can too.

It's no wonder then that in the last fiscal year, the Tate Britain has taken in €76,2 million as against 82 million for ALL publicly-held museums and archeological sites in Italy put together.

Is it lack of money to manage the museums and sites? Not really. One can find dozens of examples of wasted and pointless spending. Again Pompei as one example among many: €2 million were spent on ugly sheds that are supposed to be the caretakers and guards changing rooms...

The crowning touch? There's not even a general maintenance plan anywhere. As Francesco Bandarin, the Italian Assistant Director-general in UNESCO told the Stampa: "protecting art is not a luxury but an investment". Absolutely right.

So when are the Italians going to start doing it? Yet this is a country that can do extraordinary and innovative things if it sets its mind to it: like dig a 500 mt deep hole in a volcano and send underground sensors - in the caldera at the Campi Flegrei near Naples - for the purpose of  monitoring since there is a danger of eruption. The place has risen almost 3 meters since 1968, and this particular caldera is one of the largest and most populated in the world. An eruption here could cause millions of deaths, not to mention of course the disappearance of archeological sites like the Roman market that emerged in Pozzuoli from the bottom of the sea since the caldera pushed up the ground...This is a scientific project with risks attached - and some have heavily criticized - but for the moment, the scientists are pushing ahead, and might even go down to a depth of 4000 meters, unless they unexpectedly hit magma and have to stop.

Now, how about directing some of this remarkable energy to the preservation and management of Italy's cultural heritage?


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