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September 01, 2008

BERLUSCONI PRIVATIZES CULTURE -- a Letter from Rome

The following article was written specially for DIRELAND by this blog's Rome correspondent, veteran expat journalist Judy Harris:

Rome -- In what amounts to political sleight of hand, Italy's new brooms are recklessly sweeping away a huge portion of the income that pays for tending the Italian cultural heritage.

Here's what happened. Campaigning for national general elections lastSilvio_berlusconi  spring, media tycoon Silvio Berlusconi (right) promised to abolish the property tax (ICI) for those owning only one house. It worked, he won.

Trouble was, the incoming rightist government which Berlusconi heads was left with a budget hole from the unpaid property tax. How to fill it? Eureka! Foreigners especially love the Italian cultural heritage, as has been proven by the Packard Foundation's recent donation of cash to pay for ordinary maintenance at the ancient site of Herculaneum. This donation was proof that culture is a fine begging bowl, and that it can lure cash from foreign foundations and the earnest, cultivated filthy rich.

Pompeii_wall_freiize The first step in trying to cadge money to pay for Italian culture: a campaign denigrating Pompeii, depicted as hopelessly degraded by various news organizations in the U.S. and elsewhere. (Left, a Pompeii wall painting)

No one denies Italy faces a challenge in maintaining its immense cultural heritage: along with its 4,000 museums and 2,000 archeological sites are minor treasures, such as mildew-threatened archives of ancient abbeys and the endangered film libraries housing the masterworks of early Italian cinema. Who is to take care of all this?

Article 9 of the Italian Constitution is clear on this point. The custody of the national heritage, plus protection of the landscape itself, is specifically and exclusively the responsibility of the national government.

But it is also clear that tourism, which brought into the country last year over E. 31 billion, depends upon that heritage, the single most important attraction for foreigners.         

When it was announced that the Culture Ministry would lose E. 1.5 billion in the next three years, the first to protest was the head of that Ministry's advisory committee, archaeologist Salvatore Settis. The cuts suggest the Government intends to abolish the Culture Ministry or to reduce it to a larval state, he charged. What's left will just about pay the staff, whose median age, incidentally, is over 55.€

At just 0.28% of the Italian GNP in 2007, the Ministry budget was already anorexic. Even the directors of Uffizi Gallery in Florence are worried that its services and plans for a new exit and exhibition space for its Magliabechiana Library will be affected.

Sandro_bondi The new minister for culture, Sandro Bondi, 49 (left), is taking all this in his stride, counting upon the privatization of Italian cultural enterprises to make up the difference. Bondi, a sometime poet (he publishes a weekly poem in a popular magazine), used to be Berlusconi's private secretary and gate-keeper. He is also the author of Una Storia Italiana, a lavishly illustrated biography of the Premier mailed to all Italian families during the 2001 election campaign.

In planning to recover income through privatization, Berlusconi and Bondi have seized upon ancient Pompeii as the likeliest new income source, and to this end Bondi toured the site in mid-July with a gaggle of fellow parliamentarians and journalists. This is an important day, my first real trial as minister, he said after meeting Pompeii staffers.

With well over two million visitors annually, Pompeii was and is the quintessential cash cow, and last year a private research firm hired by the Italian industrialists' association, Confindustria, suggested that the present income is only a small amount of what Pompeii could earn.

Subsequently a press campaign was launched protesting the alleged degradation of Pompeii (and making clear that privatization can heal its wounds), culminating in installation of a prefect to oversee finances and to work alongside the archaeologist, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, director of Pompeii for the past decade.

Pompeii can surely use some tidying: it sorely needs a visitors€™ information center, explanatory panels, more gardeners, more guards and refurbished public toilets. But what is being proposed is to use the site as a movie set and for private events; last spring its largest ancient theater was rented for a local political event.

In the past, income from Pompeii ticket sales went automatically to the Ministry in Rome and was then parceled out, with a portion returning and the rest financing less popular sites. But since the arrival of Professor Guzzo, all Pompeii funding remains at Pompeii. (Although an official figure mentions $60 million income, with $16 charged per ticket for approximately 70% paid entries, Pompeii's take-home should be in excess of $200 million annually.)        

Privatization goes hand in hand with devolution, promoted actively by Berlusconi's powerful coalition partner, the truculent Umberto Bossi, photographed in late July giving the finger while the Italian national anthem was being played. The problem here is that greater localism is a serious risk to the cultural heritage in those regions where organized crime penetrates local politics. Among the sites known to be at perennial risk from building speculators is the Valley of the Temples at Agrigento.

Judith_harris_large DIRELAND's Rome correspondent, Judy Harris (left), is a veteran ex-pat journalist who used to write from Italy for TIME magazine and the Wall Street Journal, and now writes for ArtNews. She's the author of the recently-published book, Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery. You can visit her website by clicking here.

Read Judy's previous recent dispatches for DIRELAND: "Prodi's Contradictions," February 26, 2007; "Rome's Anti-Gay Family Day," May 12, 2007; "An Agenda for Bush's Italian Visit," June 8, 2007; "Rome's Gay Kiss-in Protests Arrests," August 3, 2007; "Italy's New Left Party, Old Divisions," October 23, 2007; "Pope Charged With Heresy by Rome University," January 17, 2008; "The Ghosts That Haunt Italy's Elections," March 16, 2008; "Aldo Moro, the Ouija Board, and Romano Prodi: New Revelations About Italy's Most Significant Political Assassination," March 26, 2008; "Italy's Elections: Viagra for the Doldrums?" April 4, 2008; "Rome Turns Right," April 28, 2008;  "Is Italy Going Fascist?" June 13, 2008

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