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A spent inheritance
W.V. Harris

A spent inheritance, (recensione a S. Settis, Italia Spa), Times Literary Supplement, 27/6/2003

Salvatore Settis is the Director of Italy's most prestigious educational institution, the Scuola Normale Superiore at Pisa, and is an authoritative voice in virtue of his work as an art historian. This compact book is a counter-attack against what he sees as the assault of the current Italian government, by means of privatization, on the vast archaeological, artistic and architectural inheritance of the Italian state. It gains in force from the fact that he holds both sides in the politicai duel, the Centre Left as well as the followers of Silvio Berlusconi, to be guilty: in other words, this is by no means a party political tract.

It is nonetheless a very passionate statement, all the more as it departs from Settis's normally quiet and scholarly mode of writing. The cover of the book sets the tone: Goya's bloody image of Saturn devouring his children. The title "Italia S.p.A." alludes to the Berlusconi Government's creation in June 2002 of an entity known as Patrimonio S.p.A. ("Heritage PLC"), which is now permitted on certain poorly defined conditions to sell the real property belonging to the State (the 'Tremonti Law"). At most, a sale requires the signature of the minister of Beni e Attività Culturali (Cultural Properties and Activities). In any case, a number of sales of historically or artistically valuable properties have already taken place.

It is Settis's hard-to-deny contention that this stock of buildings is a major part of Italy's identity, and hence cannot be alienated for material gain without vast non-material costs. His line of argument is that Italy has an exceptionally strong tradition of preventing loss and damage to its patrimonio culturale, a tradition rooted in the sixteenth century and widely applied after the Risorgimento. Italy would not, for example, have permitted the massacre of country houses which took place in Britain between 1920 and 1980. Furthermore, Italy's museums and monuments are integral parts of the culture of their
individual communities. The State should therefore look after its museums and halt or reverse the privatization of museum "services" (cataloguing, exhibition-organizing, and so on), which has been gathering speed in recent years. In Settis's view, the free-marketeers are threatening the cultural life of every Italian region, out of admiration for a largely irrelevant economic model and in the hope of realizing what can only be minor fiscal gains (unless the State sells major assets such as the Uffizi, which is not going to happen just yet).

What is at first sight most depressing about this situation is that the Centre Left, when it was in power (1996-2001), was virtually as favourable to cultural privatization as the present regime. When Prodi's government came in, it seemed encouraging that the Ministry of Beni Culturali was placed in the hands of the deputy prime minister, Walter Veltroni, but in fact Veltroni, an admirer of things American, furthered the process of privatizing museum services which had begun in 1992, when Alberto Ronchey was minister. Giovanna Melandri, who held down that job for the last period of the centre-left government, gets caustic treatment here: she put forward an unintelligible policy of privatizing the management and the valorizzazione (roughly, 'active use') of museums without privatizing the museums themselves. In any case, there seems to be no real prospect that a new centre-left government would reverse current policies; unless, that is, Settis's eloquent book can change certain minds.

Settis, however, apparently hopes that the detachment of this issue from party politics may turn out to be an advantage, and he has become a member of the scholarly council set up by the current minister of Beni Culturali, Giuliano Urbani, to advise him on such matters. There is no other option. But many will remember that Urbani has sometimes represented the civilized façade of Berlusconi administrations, and a few will also have read Urbani's evasive and irresponsible effusion on the subject, "Il tesoro degli italiani" (2002), where the favourite concept is "merchandising" (in English, naturally). The best hope for the time being, as far as artistically valuable properties are concerned, must be that Urbani will stall for the rest of this legislature.

Settis is well aware that some readers will think his book alarmist. But the dangers are genuine, and serious. There is, for instance, appalling unclarity in recent legislation: while the Tremonti Law requires sales of public property to be approved by the Minister of Beni Culturali, it did not revoke the law of November 2001 (Law 410) which allows the sale of public property without the approval of said minister; still less, of course, did it revoke Article 9 of the 1948 Italian Constitution, which says that the Republic "protects the landscape and the historic and artistic patrimony of the Nation". And this is to pass over the complications that arise from the rights of the regions and the cities. What has been sold so far is minor, or not minor, depending on your point of view: Palazzo Correr in Venice, and the old state cigarette factory in Florence. But it is not extreme to suggest that a massive wedge is being driven, or to predict that much worse is to come.

The museum problem is just as insidious. In the beginning (1992) it was a matter of peripheral services, refreshments and such. By 1998, the core of a museum's activities was under attack. In a sense, Italian state museums are paying the price for having in the past let themselves appear to be mainly hordes of treasure. Your average philistine minister may well not understand that a healthy museum cannot function without a good catalogue, restorers, educational programmes and many such "services". As Settis says, the only justifiable role for the private sector in these core activities is that of the sponsor of activities under the museum's control. There is no reason in the world why the State should provide private companies with direct profits from such activities: the "treasures" belong to the people.

This is not to suggest that everything has flourished under state control, and it may be that Settis by implication takes a slightly too rosy view of what happened under the First Republic. Large sections of great museums remained closed for years, and some small provincial museums were shut down altogether. (But foreigners should not complain too much; what if Britain had as many medieval buildings as Italy?) In a recent number of Micromega, Settis sketched positive policies for dealing with his nation's patrimonio culturale. It would be an enormous stroke of good fortune for Italy, and indeed for the rest of Europe - since these are problems of more than national importance - if he got the chance to put those policies into action. No one would support him more fully than Italy's human patrimony of archaeologists and art historians.


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