Winds of change are sweeping through the dusty palazzos and abandoned ruins of Italy — as budget cuts in tough economic times force the managers of famous monuments to seek revenues and investment.
The crumbling Colosseum is being restored by shoe tycoon Diego Della Valle, the ancient Roman city of Pompeii is looking for private funders and the august royal residence of Venaria near Turin has opened its gates to banquets and fashion shows.
“Our system works and it can be used elsewhere. We have a balanced budget,” said Alberto Vanelli, the director of Venaria Reale, as he took a group of visitors on a tour of the vast halls of this palace once inhabited by Italy’s ruling dynasty.
The enormous structure, with a surface area of 80,000m2, was a residence of the House of Savoy until 1815 and has since been bought by the state.
It includes a Baroque chapel and stables stretching out over 5,00m2.
“Running Venaria costs 14 million euros [US$20 million] a year. Half of that comes from private donations. The other half from entry tickets and services for visitors,” said Vanelli, who has worked as a cultural counsellor for 30 years.
Vanelli said his running of Venaria has been so successful that he is coming up with a set of instructions on how to run public monuments with private funds.
“The key is transparency combined with a business mindset,” he said.
The idea of private-sector thinking in running some of Italy’s best loved tourist sights has proved highly controversial and the blood runs high, particularly among opponents of Italian Prime Minister Silvio -Berlusconi’s center-right government.
Culture Minister Giancarlo Galan waded into the debate earlier this year when he said he wanted to put his “heart and soul” into introducing private management of cultural treasures after his appointment to the post earlier this year.
At a presentation on the 25 million euro restoration of the Colosseum being funded by Della Valle, Galan said he would offer “fiscal advantages” to companies that invest in culture.
“Culture is a resource for our country,” he said.
However, campaigners warn it’s a slippery slope toward privatization.
Last month activists took over the Valle — an 18th century theater in the heart of Rome — after it was rumored it would be handed over into private management and turned into a lavish restaurant or even a delicatessen.
“Keep the Valle public!” activists, who have barricaded themselves inside the building and are holding a series of talks and concerts, said in a statement.
“We’re coming up with a new statute for a foundation that will run the Valle and that we hope will revolutionize the way culture is managed in Italy. The most important idea is that culture is a common good,” they said last week.
In a recent protest outside the gates of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, which was buried in ashes by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79, activists put up signs reading “For Sale” and: “Don’t Bury Pompeii Again With Your Money!”
However, cultural public officials like Vanelli say the new times are an opportunity.
He has hired out the palace for concerts, weddings and even cookery contests.
The residence also hosts prestigious exhibitions including an ongoing one of masterpieces by Caravaggio, Giotto, Titian and a planned one of Leonardo da Vinci.
While common practice in other parts of the world, innovative ways of drumming up revenue for public monuments are still relatively rare in Italy.