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Culture

Colosseum, Inc.

Activists and the Italian government are sparring over a vaguely written law that some say could lead to the auctioning of cherished national treasures - from the Trevi Fountain to Pompeii.

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Headed for the auction block?

When in Rome, "Just do it?"

In the near future, when visiting Italy, there may be a few new names to add to your fallen empire sightseeing list: The Nike Colosseum, the AOL Time-Warner Pompeii Experience, the Fiat Pantheon or, perhaps, San Pellegrino's Trevi Fountain.

Critics of a new law passed earlier this month by conservative Premier Silvio Berlusconi to reduce Italy's deficit spending could lead to the sale of the country's greatest national treasures. Under the law, Italy will establish two management companies - Patrimonio SpA and Infrastructure SpA - to run the country's biggest cultural sites. The hope is that the two private firms will help transform national treasures into money makers for the cash-strapped country.

President warns against sale of treasures

In signing the bill into law, Italy's largely ceremonial president, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, also wrote a letter warning that the vaguely written laws could allow for the sale of antiquities like the Colosseum or the Leaning Tower of Pisa if they are not safeguarded. The law would also allow the nation's heritage sites to be used as collatoral for securing government loans - putting the sites at great risk of foreign ownership if the government falls into delinquency.

The government has argued that a private company can better care for a single monument than the government of Italy, which is currently responsible for the upkeep of close to 400,000. Italian Culture Minister Giuliano Urbani has said that the government has to care for an "immense" amount of cultural treasures with "few civil servants and a laughable budget."

A black sheep resigns in protest

Approval of the law prompted the resignation of Vittorio Sgarbi, a razor-tongued under-secretary in the Ministry of Culture. Sgarbi is a controversial figure in Italian politics who rose to fame as an art critic and author. He also served as a loose canon and black sheep in the Berlusconi administration. The day he quit, Sgarbi said: "I cannot accept this -- you might be able to sell buildings, but the government cannot sell the contents of the Uffizi in Florence."

Preservationists and environmental activists in Italy are rallying around the issue using the slogan: "Save the Colosseum." Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Federation recently staged an auction of Rome's beloved Trevi Fountain.

But the government says it is unlikely any national treasures will be sold. "Selling the Colosseum is pretty far away from the logic of the plan," Italian Finance Minister Giulio Tremonti told the country's public radio broadcaster in mid-June.

Crippling national debt

With more than $1.25 trillion (1.26 trillion euro) in public debt, the Berlusconi government has said it wants to turn money-losing, government-owned tourist attractions into money-making endeavors. With an infusion of cash into the state coffers, Berlusconi would also be able to fund some of the projects he touted during his election campaign, like a promised bridge from the mainland to the island of Sicily.

The main provision of the law, which was masterminded by Culture Minister Urbani, permits the government to issue lucrative contracts to private businesses to manage the sites for up to five years in the first-ever semi-privatization of Italy's cultural heritage sites.

Museum directors protest

Prior to the passage of the law, more than 50 directors of leading museums around the world, including the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the National Gallery in London, and the Prado in Madrid issued an open letter pleading with the Berlusconi government to chart a different course.

But many Italians support the decision following years of poor government management of the sites, which often lack even the most basic tourist facilities and infrastructure.

Italy would not be the first country to partially privatize its national treasures. Under the government of deposed leader Alberto Fujimori, the Peruvians sought to sell off important artifacts to raise money. Among its most controversial measures was the issuing of concessions for the construction of commercial facilities, including a hotel, on the grounds of the ancient ruins at Machu Picchu.