Preserving Italy's - and Europe's - Heritage Is A Challenge

I am intrigued by Italy's cultural patrimony and the subsequent need and challenges to protect it.

What makes Italy different from almost any nation on earth is the sheer size and magnitude of its cultural heritage. I can understand why Italy sometimes can look 'shabby' to outsiders. It just doesn't, despite having more cultural research experts than any country, have the resources to maintain all of its treasures. Which is why they're turned to the private sector for help.

Excerpts from Der Spiegel:

Culture is Italy's natural resource, almost like oil for the Middle East. It is home to 44 UNESCO World Heritage sites, about 5,000 museums and 60,000 archeological sites, more than any other country in the world. But Italy's treasures are not being kept up. Under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, the government's cultural budget shrank by a third within three years. His finance minister defended the cuts by saying: "I don't know what all the fuss is about. After all, you can't eat culture."

Today only €1.4 billion ($1.86 billion) is devoted to culture -- less than 0.2 percent of the national budget. Author Umberto Eco calls it the "anorexia of culture." It has been the Italian reality for years, and now Prime Minister Mario Monti is seeking to limit the damage.

In Rome, Diego Della Valle, 58, was considered a pioneer of sponsoring, but now his private initiative threatens to fail in the face of bureaucracy and sovereignty in matters of cultural heritage preservation. Last year, Valle, the owner of the Tod's shoe company, prevailed over other interested parties, including low-cost carrier Ryanair and real estate companies, and received the exclusive rights for the visual use of the Coliseum in Rome. In return, he promised to spend €25 million on a complete renovation of the 2,000-year-old structure, including the construction of a visitors' center. 
Rome Mayor Giovanni Alemanno was thrilled.

But then the union representing cultural workers sued because it believes that the process is illegal. The renovation work was scheduled to begin in March, but nothing happened. And earlier this month, when Pope Benedict XVI held the traditional Good Friday Procession at the Coliseum, a spotlight was shone once again on the poor condition of the structure, with its crumbling mortar and blackened fa├žade, the result of being surrounded by busy traffic arterials in the middle of Rome.

Since thefinancial collapse of the last two years, Pompeii has become the symbol of a decaying country, culturally bankrupt and crippled by political gladiators whose official limousines allegedly cost twice as much as the country's cultural budget. Three million tourists visit the sites each year, paying an entrance fee of €11 apiece, revenues that come in addition to the subsidies from Rome. But the constantly changing superintendents have wasted the money on elaborate shows or spent it on the €6 million concrete restoration of the Grand Theater.

A red carpet, now much worse for wear, that was rolled out for a visit by Berlusconi is still lying on the path to the villa of Marcus Lucretius, the most powerful moneylender in the city. A few years ago, Berlusconi declared a state of emergency in Pompeii, because the city was controlled by stray dogs and mafia-like gangs of tour guides, and only a fraction of the houses could still be visited. But he never showed up, not even when the famous gladiator school collapsed in late 2010, an incident President Giorgio Napolitano called a "disgrace for Italy."

But in Pompeii's sister city Herculaneum, the American David Woodley Packard, son of the founder of Hewlett-Packard, is ensuring that 30 conservators are working to preserve the ancient city, and there is now money available for research and new excavations. The Herculaneum Conservation Project, together with the British School at Rome, has already invested €15 million, and there are no advertising panels to be seen.

There are reportedly already 20,000 of these private initiatives in Italy, where citizens are establishing local heritage museums and paying for the preservation of historic sites. In Rome, a group of concerned citizens even occupied the Teatro Valle, which they are now running. They all benefit from the fact that the government is so weak.

A discussion on this from Net-Heritage and need for Heritage research across Europe in which Italy is seen as a leader.

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