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Maybe the art vandals actually do us all a favour

The damage to a Bernini fountain in Rome raises questions as well as fury, says Andrew Gumbel
Oh,What Fun an art vandal can have if he really puts his mind to it! A quick slash of the knife, a deft blow with a hammer, a well-aimed slosh of bright paint - that's all it takes to leave one's mark, at least temporarily, on virtually any of the world's great masterpieces. The Portland Vase, Leonardo's Cartoon and Michelangelo's Pieta have been among the victims.

Last week Bernini's majestic Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona in Rome became the latest of the afflicted, although it was a pretty low-tech job, even by the low standards of art vandalism: a 43-year-old loafer from the suburbs decided to try out his diving technique on the back end of a stone dolphin, and promptly broke it into three pieces.

The damage was not particularly extensive, and the authorities hope the dolphin will be intact again by the end of September. The culprit, a certain Nello Intili, was caught on the spot, whisked into custody and sentenced - with unusual swiftness for the Italian judicial system - to three months behind bars. A regrettable but well-handled incident, one might say.

The affair has nevertheless struck a raw nerve in Italy and abroad, and has raised the age-old question of how the world's great artworks can be adequately protected. Send in the army, thundered one hot-headed Italian member of parliament. Open a judicial investigation and nail someone for neglect, thundered others. In the foreign press, one sensed a lurking suspicion that the Italians really weren't up to the job of looking after their own treasures.

This may not have been the right incident on which to hang all these anxieties, but that does not mean that they do not have ample justification. Some 130,000 artworks have been lost or stolen in Italy in the past five years. Plenty more are rotting, under attack from pollution and official neglect. In Pompeii, Italy's most visited tourist site by far, the colours of the paintings are fading, the walls are under attack from weeds, salt and acid rain, and much of the site is too fragile to be viewed by the public.

When it comes to vandalism, Italy suffers from the fact that so many of its glories are on display in the open air. Unfortunately, for art lovers, big public squares are all too often frequented by football hooligans celebrating their team's latest victories. Revelling fans were responsible for damaging a statue of Neptune in Florence's Piazza della Signoria in 1982 (a work attacked again in 1986), and also for messing up the plumbing of a fountain in Bologna's Piazza Maggiore in 1994.

Museum pieces, on the other hand, tend to be the targets of lone madmen. The Italian-Hungarian student who took a hammer to Michelangelo's Pieta in St Peter's in 1972, Lazslo Toth, told the investigating magistrate that he had been obeying the orders of God. Pietro Cannata, who knocked one of the feet off of Michelangelo's David in the Accademia in Florence in 1991, was such an accomplished art vandal (he had attacked paintings and frescoes all over Tuscany) that he was nicknamed the "serial killer" of high culture.

It is far from clear what can be done to stop such attacks, and whether such measures are really desirable. One of the pleasures of Italy is the informal, intimate relationship between the country and its artistic past. Children kick footballs against the great marble pillars of the Pantheon in Rome, but they do not do it out of malice. A Bernini fountain in the middle of a piazza is far more refreshing than an artwork cordoned off and protected with burglar alarms in a museum.

One can even argue, a touch perversely, that vandalism is good for art treasures. When Leonardo's Cartoon was shot at in the National Gallery in London in the early Eighties, the result was an outpouring of funds for restoration and protection from light damage; the work has never looked as good as it does now. The damage to the Bernini fountain tells a similar story: we can expect rapid repairs, perhaps a general overhaul, and greater vigilance against future attacks. The vandals might just be doing us all a big favour.