Cuts 'may force Italian galleries to close'

Italy's unrivalled artistic heritage, already under strain and haemorrhaging visitors, will be thrown into crisis if planned government cuts go ahead, the Culture Minister Giuliano Urbani warned yesterday. He said famous museums such as Florence's Uffizi gallery could be forced to close.

Italy's unrivalled artistic heritage, already under strain and haemorrhaging visitors, will be thrown into crisis if planned government cuts go ahead, the Culture Minister Giuliano Urbani warned yesterday. He said famous museums such as Florence's Uffizi gallery could be forced to close.

Mr Urbani told Corriere della Sera newspaper yesterday that if plans to cap his ministry's budget at 25 per cent below its present level were carried out, he would resign. "I am not going to be an impotent witness to suicide," he said.

With economic growth at a standstill for two years and public debt ballooning, Domenico Siniscalco, Italy's new Finance Minister, announced last month that he was taking a leaf out of Britain's book and putting a spending cap on ministerial budgets, aiming to cut government spending by a total of €17bn (£11.5bn).

Mr Urbani warned that cuts on such a scale would do profound damage to a vital national resource. "The reductions under consideration," he said, "would cut into cultural assets in a heavy and indiscriminate fashion". The government foresees, he went on, "a reduction of 25 per cent of spending on the running costs of museums and archaeological sites.

"Cuts in running costs would compel us to review contracts with the firms that take care of those facilities: less money means fewer services. All of which would impinge directly on the opening hours of museums and sites, which in the past three years we have succeeded in extending.

"And with the logic of cuts there arrives the logic of progressive closure of museums and archaeological sites. To give an idea, we would have to consider the total or partial closure of the Uffizi."

One of the world's great art museums, the Uffizi was first used as an exhibition space by Cosimo de Medici in the second half of the 16th century. Subsequent Medicis continued to add to the gallery's collection, which now includes masterpieces by Giotto, Raphael, Masaccio, Piero della Francesca, Botticelli, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and many more.

But despite the tourists thronging such famous museums, Italy has seen a slump in cultural visitors. More than 11 million people visited Italy's museums and other cultural sites last year, but that was more than one million down on the figure for 1999.

Mr Urbani's dramatic warning is the first shot across Mr Berlusconi's bows in advance of what promises to be a bruising spending battle in September.

Mr Urbani frankly favours raising taxes - anathema to Mr Berlusconi, whose election slogan was "less taxes for everyone" - if that is what it takes to spare his department.

"Cultural assets are vital for development connected to tourism," he insisted, "and cause the diffusion of a positive and prestigious image of our country to the outside world. Our artistic patrimony is a brand: is that understood or not? If within the government all think this way, then the brand must be supported. But if people think it right to make cuts, then I will not be available [to implement them]."

Mr Siniscalco's task is greatly complicated by the fact that levels of public-sector employment are regarded as sacrosanct, "the most sacred of national taboos" as one commentator put it this week. The recent announcement by Tony Blair's government of the cutting of 100,000 civil service jobs was received with incredulity here. One reason that such cuts are politically impossible is the absence of social security provision, besides pensions.

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