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Cultural Cop-Out

Kirstin Hausen (ls)August 16, 2008

Silvio Berlusconi is reforming Italy's cultural landscape. The nation has since long been scoring points in culture, but now the country is broke and is rethinking the preservation of cultural monuments.

The ancient Greek Temple of Juno
Italy is calling for private leasing and selling instead of restorationImage: AP

Milan native Simona Cagno is worried about churches and historical palaces that are disintegrating all over Italy right in front of her.

"I don't know what I should say about this," she said. "I can't seem to find the words."

Private leasing and selling" instead of expensive restoration is now apparently the word from Rome. In other words: getting rid of monuments instead of holding onto them. In Verona, three palaces and one former convent are about to be auctioned off so that the city can afford a new parking garage for trade show visitors.

Have the Italian authorities lost their minds?

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi
Berlusconi's government is doing some belt-tighteningImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

In Sicily, the region is planning to privately rent the world-famous Temple of Agrigento for the next 30 years.

"It just makes me scream and ask: 'How much further will Italy sink?'" said Gottfried Wagner with disgust. An historian, music scientist, writer and opera conductor, Richard Wagner's great-grandson has been living in Italy for almost 30 years.

The country has produced the greatest painters, composers and architects not just for Europe, but for world history as well, Wagner said.

"Where will we end up if culture is only abused for political prostitution?" he asked.

Has the cultural legacy been lost?

Silvio Berlusconi would be more than happy to silence the skeptics in Italy -- whether they are judges, monument preservationists or artists. There hasn't been talk of an interesting cultural sector for a long time now.

"Nothing considerable is taking place anymore that I would probably appreciate," Wagner said, adding that in the past, there was a real sense of excitement and now that no longer exists.

"And this is the cultural and spiritual situation at the moment in Italy and I could say this a thousand times over: it's frightening," he said.

Trash instead of culture -- what started in Berlusconi's television programs has since spread through the entire country. Italy, the cradle of the Renaissance and of the communal city character, is trampling on its cultural legacy -- a legacy that attracts millions of tourists to the country.

No money for culture

The Piazza Vecchia in Bergamo Alta
Famous constructions are set to be leasedImage: picture-alliance / Bildagentur Huber

They marvel at Leonardo da Vinci's Last Supper, for example, and most are overwhelmed by the 15th century mural painting's beauty. The Fresco has been restored for 20 years to help stop its slow deterioration. Private sponsors carry the costs for this almost exclusively. The Ministry of Cultural Assets, which would normally take responsibility for the "Last Supper" did not have enough money.

Now the situation is even more depressing. Not even 3 percent of Italian households will donate money for the maintenance of monuments. And the cutbacks that the Berlusconi government passed via a finance decree leave the budget of the Ministry of Cultural Assets even smaller.

"The funds for cultural assets and museums have degenerated like the political interest in culture," said Salvatore Settis, Italy's most well-known monument preservationist. The internationally-recognized art historian and director of the state-run ivy-league-type school "Ecole Normale" in Pisa has calculated that the savings totaling 700 million euros ($1 billion) over three years mean less for the Ministry of Cultural Assets.

No sense of culture?

In answer to the tentative question of where the Minister should still make cuts, Antonio Leone from the governing party alliance "Volk der Freiheit" (People of Freedom) said: "The minister must now set priorities. The ministry received a certain budget and it has to make do with it."

It is the minister's job to make cuts where cuts can be made, and not to make cuts where they can't be made, he added.