Outcry as Italy starts to sell off its heritage

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Italy's great asset-strip has begun. Desperate for revenue, Silvio Berlusconi's government has already made billions of euros out of amnesties to illegal builders and tax evaders. Now it plans to sell off the family silver, starting today.

Italy's great asset-strip has begun. Desperate for revenue, Silvio Berlusconi's government has already made billions of euros out of amnesties to illegal builders and tax evaders. Now it plans to sell off the family silver, starting today.

The Italian state, says the Minister of Culture, Giuliano Urbani, owns far too much: thousands and thousands of buildings and plots of land, some of immense value, such as the Colosseum or Trevi Fountain, others of no real value. Many were properties bought as part of the practice of lottizzazione, by which the state forked out taxpayers' money to its friends and favourites for their often semi-useless buildings.

"First in the Fascist period and then in the [post-war] republic ... the public sphere became greatly over-extended," the minister said. "We are not talking about selling the Colosseum, but for the first time we will establish what can be sold and what cannot."

What makes the sale possible is an elaborate regulatory code for cultural assets that comes into force today, laying down in detail how Italy's patrimony must be treated. Now state-owned buildings and land deemed of no real value can be listed for sale. If the cultural curators responsible for them do not object within 120 days, they can be sold.

Mr Urbani said: "We have a demesne which is the product of a form of socialism that functioned like royalty. We don't have the money to conserve the works of art: we possess crumbling barracks, tumbledown historical palaces, uncultivated land, property of no interest. All this must go."

As a result, some extraordinary properties are going to come on the market. It may not be immediately obvious what one can do with a well- preserved 2,000-year-old nymphaeum (shrine of the nymphs) in central Rome or the Auditorium of Mecenate, which was once the property of the Emperor Tiberius. But these, along with a former convent and an ex-monastery, various disused barracks and some thundering 19th-century public buildings, are among the first 21 assets to be put on the list.

Heritage and environmental organisations have pounced angrily on the ministry's initiative. A group of professors and curators published an open letter, warning of "the grave danger to which our cultural patrimony is exposed".

Few believe that invaluable masterpieces such as Bernini's Trevi Fountain - famously "sold" to a tourist by the comic actor Toto - will ever end up on the block. But criticism has been focused on the "silent assent" mechanism.

Dr Marco Magnifico, director general of Fondo per l'Ambiente Italiano, a conservation society, said: "The great problem with the code is that it does not take into account the desperate situation of the Italian curators, for whom it supposes an enormous role which it will be impossible for them to fulfill." The offices of the curators, according to Dr Magnifico, are chronically short both of money and qualified staff - the people on whose informed decisions the success of the initiative depends.

"It's like inviting 1,000 people to lunch but there are only 20 people in the kitchen. The table settings may look fantastic but there's no one in the kitchen so there will be nothing to eat."

The eminent art historian and curator Arturo Carlo Quintavalle fears the new code will bring about the destruction of a century of conservation work. "Four generations of curators have given their lives protecting objects and environments," he commented. "Now we are to assist in the dissolution of that whole cultural system."

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