Italy and cultural heritage are familiar bedfellows. Due to its rich history–from the Etruscans to ancient Rome, to the explosion of artistic creation in the Florentine Renaissance–il bel paese suffers from what has been aptly referred to as an “embarrassment of riches.” In a world without budgetary limitations and financial crises, the problem of too many heritage sites in need of maintenance, preservation, and protection would be no problem at all. But in the real world, Italy’s overabundance of culture is a problem of resource allocation, ranking and prioritization of heritage sites, and a huge, increasing dependence on tourism for economic growth.
As the euro crisis continues, Italy’s already limited budget for cultural preservation will likely shrink further in order to work towards a more sustainable economy (ideally one in which public debt levels of 120% of GDP are a laughable thing of the past). Silvio Berlusconi–you might remember him as the former, bunga-bunga billionaire prime minister of Italy–cut the budget of the Italian Culture Ministry in half over the past three years (Macintyre 2011). Of course, financial crises call for a re-evaluation of priorities, but as Macintyre notes, “Greece, in even worse financial straits than Italy, works harder on maintaining the fabric of the past” (2011). For a country home to the largest number of World Heritage Sites on earth and reliant on tourism for a whopping 8.6% of national GDP, spending 0.18% of the federal budget on cultural preservation seems parsimonious at best, and horribly short-sighted at worst.
In whose capable hands does this leave the fate of the Colosseum, the Venetian canals, and the site of ancient Pompeii? Corporate sponsors, of course. “Made in Italy,” that other defining industry of the country, has risen to the challenge, most famously in the case of the crumbling Colosseum. The well-heeled founder of Tod’s, Diego Della Valle, has pledged a generous 25 million euro to support the restoration effort of the gladiatorial arena. Tod’s may not roll off the tongue with the same gusto as Dolce & Gabbana or Salvatore Ferragamo (it sounds rather more British, if you ask me), but the leather goods and shoe company has obviously done quite well for itself. The shape of the peninsula says it all: good shoes really are the secret to Italian success.
As the number of sites in need of salvation grows, it seems that Italy has little choice but to sell its soul to the corporate world. Assuming all sponsors, like Tod’s, agree that advertising will play no role in the restoration efforts, however, it remains to be seen whether the millions of tourists will even know the difference. Even if they do, will this have an effect on their interpretation of the cultural sites in question? Are we witnessing the ultimate commodification of culture, or merely a creative financing scheme? Call me old-fashioned, but this sort of public-private partnership makes me uneasy. And yet, if a bit of pandering to the likes of fashion designers will ensure that Venice floats above the Adriatic for posterity, I would be the first to advise the Italian government to engage in more financial networking efforts.
Macintyre, Ben. (2011 November 15). Fallen leader leaves Italy’s heritage in ruins. Venice in Peril. Retrieved from: http://www.veniceinperil.com/newsroom/press/times-fallen-leader
(2011 January 21). Tod’s Founder To Restore Rome’s Colosseum. Huffington Post. Retrieved from: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/21/tods-founder-to-restore-r_n_812444.html
Image courtesy of Kaosrimo Marco Rimoldivia Wikimedia Commons.