Art treasures under threat: Trashing Michelangelo

Italy's rich heritage is suffering: from lack of cash, from lack of interest and from sheer stupidity. Now a shocking new advertising campaign aims to encourage people to reach into their own pockets to save their treasures. Peter Popham reports from Rome
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The Independent Online

The large marble youth lurking in the gloom of the rotunda is familiar enough, from his thick, curly hair and the loving, precise detail of his chest, to the stone and the sling, heavy in his poised, calculating hands. Yet there is something shockingly wrong with Michelangelo's David, the most famous statue in the world.

Half of his leg is missing. The stump of his left thigh is supported on a small, crude steel scaffold.

The absence is haunting. But the mutilated David is only one of a series of disturbing images that will confront Italians in the coming weeks as the cultural establishment attempts the colossal task of persuading the people that their peerless cultural patrimony is a responsibility as well as a pleasure: one that is not only to be looked on with pride but to be looked after.

In Italy every footstep falls on a precious piece of the past. There is so much heritage that it is almost impossible not to start taking it for granted. An outing for an ice cream in central Rome is an incidental survey of astonishing architectural masterpieces such as Piazza Navona or Piazza Spagna. The masterpieces of Bernini are as familiar as the local supermarket.

The residents of the Eternal City, for whom these wonders form a daily backdrop, are inevitably made more blasé by their endless exposure.

Now Michelangelo's masterpiece, flanked by a torn canvas of Botticelli's Venus Rising and Leonardo's Last Supper, with the disciples scrubbed out, are part of a wake-up call to the nation.

Dr Ledo Prato, secretary general of the heritage foundation CittaItalia, is charged with telling people that the time has come to reach into their pockets. "Italy has such a vast cultural patrimony that public resources are not enough and could never be enough to conserve it and keep it in optimum condition," he said.

Until now, it has been commonly assumed that ensuring that Rome's cultural inheritance remains eternal was somebody else's business. For centuries it was the responsibility of the papacy - the extravagant pontiffs who commissioned these works, and their heirs.

But for the past century and a half it has been the job of the Italian state, which has Draconian powers, much stronger than those in Britain, to prevent important buildings or works of art from being mutilated, destroyed or exported.

But, as successive culture ministers have frequently lamented, there is simply too much patrimony to go around. The budget won't stretch, has never been big enough, could never be big enough. Already the gaps are showing: masterpieces are quietly deteriorating, vandals are running amok with hammers, poor managers are letting Italy's heritage slip through their careless fingers.

So the government has decided on a new approach. In an advertising campaign to be launched next month, Italy will see some of its famous wonders as they have never seen them before - and as they would hope never to see them. The ambition is to shock people into a new attitude.

Unveiling the effort, Rocco Buttiglione, Italy's new minister of culture, , said: "The care and defence of our cultural and artistic heritage isn't only the responsibility of the state, it is that of every Italian. Italians must care for the great art they have around them today, or it may not be there for future generations."

CittaItalia, a non-profit foundation which pioneered a pilot programme this time last year, raising €300,000 towards the restoration of an 18th-century church in Turin, is now involved in a much more ambitious bid.

And just to underline the sense of communal ownership, all those who make a donation will be encouraged to name the endangered cultural treasure to which they would most like to see their money go.

Dr Prato said the thinking behind the campaign was simple: "We felt this was the right time to call on the Italian people to make a direct contribution. Yes, with the national economy in the doldrums it's a difficult moment to be making such an appeal. But we are not asking people to give large sums. Even one euro will be appreciated."

Asking Italians to cough up for their heritage is a novel concept. Despite their unfortunate image abroad as a nation of tax-evaders (an image encouraged by prime minister Silvio Berlusconi), Dr Prato insists that Italians have a good track record of supporting worthy causes. "There are 29 million Italians - half the population - who give money to charity, whether for relief after the earthquake and tsunami, for other causes in impoverished countries or daily small donations of help to other causes. We want to appeal to these people who are in the habit of giving, not to divert their money from the causes they are already supporting but to ask for additional funds."

Italians are habitually sceptical about people who solicit money from them; CittaItalia hopes they will have defused that problem by setting up a committee of the great and good - including the speakers of both houses of parliament - to monitor the way the fund is used.

The modest sum raised last year went towards the restoration of the historic organ in San Massimo in Turin. "But this year the mechanism has changed," explained Dr Prato. "We have inaugurated a grand programme of public consultation: everyone who makes a contribution will be entitled to indicate which cultural treasure he or she would like to see the money used for. The funds will go to restore the monuments that get the most votes, once the suggestions have been thoroughly vetted by our scientific committee."

CittaItalia already has a "waiting list" of works which they believe should be supported, but they are also encouraging donors to make brand new suggestions.

The waiting list captures something of the incredible wealth and variety of what is at risk. It includes famous monuments such as Rome's Fontana del Tritone in Piazza Barberini, designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, which has been languishing without maintenance since 1998; the less well known but exquisite Teatrino di Villa Omo, on Lake Como, "a little jewel from the end of the 19th century", as the foundation describes it; but also extraordinary modern works such as the Casa del Mutilato, a 1938 building by the Fascist architect Eugenio Fuselli; and local curiosities such as the collection of local newspapers of the city of Trieste from 1800 to 1900.

A rash of vandalism in the past year has focused public anguish on the vulnerability of the nation's great masterpieces. In 2004 a mentally ill man attacked a series of sculpted hands in Venice, including some on the face of St Mark's Cathedral. Earlier this summer a drunken cook in Florence decided it would be a laugh to climb the city's Il Biancone, "the "Big White One" as Florentines affectionately call it, the giant 450-year-old statue of Neptune in the city's central piazza. When he fell, grabbing hold of the statue's left hand and ripping it off, he left the city with a repair bill of more than €30,000.

There are other problems where vandalism is not a single act of stupidity but a steady destructive process. As The Independent documented earlier this month, one of the most popular and important monuments in Italy, Castel Sant'Angelo in central Rome, built by Emperor Hadrian as his mausoleum and later developed into a citadel by the popes, has fallen on hard times, despite being the third most popular monument in the capital with visitors after the Vatican Museums and the Coliseum. Beggars camp in the dried-out moat, graffiti covers ancient walls, more and more rooms are closed to visitors.

At Herculaneum near Naples, inundated along with Pompei by the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius two millennia ago, the archaeologists have no hope of keeping pace with the destruction wrought by the elements: frescoes that give priceless insights into everyday life in the ancient world merely crumble away with every shower of rain, despite a large gift of private money.

The amazing ancient Greek ruins of Agrigento in Sicily are hemmed about by illegal blocks of flats sponsored and protected by the Mafia.

But these are only the problems that grab headlines. Ticking away unnoticed like a time bomb in every corner of the country is the neglect caused by the chronic shortfall in both funds and people to take care of Italy's treasures.

Dr Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the British School in Rome, which persuaded a private donor to help fund the conservation of the Herculaneum site, hailed CittaItalia's initiative - but pointed out an obvious problem.

"It's absolutely laudable to draw attention to the fact that there is a crisis in funding," he said. "It corresponds with everything I know. But the state has taken responsibility for the cultural heritage of Italy. The state is in the business of expropriating important things, and considers itself the ultimate guardian of the cultural heritage. And that removes the incentive for the people to take responsibility for it."

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