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The Colosseum is not (yet) for sale
The Economist 28/11/2002

THE lights almost went out for Botticelli's Birth of Venus and Leonardo da Vinci's Annunciation. Last week the Uffizi Gallery in Florence received a final notice from Enel, Italy's electricity company, for non-payment of its bill of euro250,000 ($248,250). One of the world's oldest and most famous museums no longer had the cash even for paper towels in the toilets. The explanation, says the culture ministry in Rome, was a communication problem, caused by a reorganisation of accounting arrangements at Italy's museums. But the Uffizi's cashflow crisis is symptomatic of a general problem.

Italy's cultural heritage is its biggest asset. No other country has so much first-class art, so many ancient remains and such a quantity of beautiful piazzas, palaces and parks. According to one UNESCO estimate, Italy is the cultural repository of more than two-thirds of western civilisation. But the state spends little on culturejust 0.18% of GDPand an absence of tax breaks for donations gives the private sector little incentive to help.

To make matters worse, a bloated state bureaucracy runs Italy's cultural patrimony. Entrance fees are often low, shops unappealing and opening hours short. A tour of the museum of Palazzo Venezia in Rome, in the brief window of opportunity between siesta and cocktail hour, reveals an art display that is inexpertly lit and explained with tiny, typewritten notes in Italian. And the most attractive bits of museums, castles or archaeological sites are often in restauro, a near-endless undertaking as funds often tend to dry up mid-way through.

Silvio Berlusconi, Italy's prime minister, is now conducting an experiment. Under the stewardship of Giulio Tremonti, the economics minister, some of Italy's treasure trove will be privatised. Parliament passed the proposal in June, despite howls of protest from the opposition. A new state agency, Patrimonio dello Stato, was set up to value Italy's cultural patrimony and to decide what could be sold, leased or even securitised.

To calm his critics, Mr Berlusconi has promised not to touch treasures that are part of Italy's national identity, such as the Colosseum, the leaning tower of Pisa or indeed the Uffizi. Future owners of shares in Italian cultural treasures will not be able to buy a majority stake. Leases will be limited to five years. Yet the new law is vaguely worded: it does not explicitly exclude a transfer to the private sector of Italy's best-known treasures.

Giovanna Melandri, a former culture minister, is a fierce critic of these proposals. She says that the private sector should be allowed to buy stakes in Italy's cultural heritage only if private owners are obliged to maintain and restore sites and to make them accessible to the public; and provided that the state can take back the site should the new owners not fulfil these obligations. Mr Berlusconi's law comes with no such strings.

In August, Patrimonio published a first list of the value of items that might be sold, securitised or leased. The 800-page document lists cultural treasures, beaches and even prisons. The remains of the Villa Jovis, where Emperor Tiberius stayed on Capri, are valued at just euro90,000. The island of Pinosa, off the coast of Tuscany, is listed at euro8m. And those tempted to buy San Vittore, a prison in Milan, will have to pay at least euro20m.

By the end of the year Patrimonio plans to publish a more specific list of items. The agency will probably need another year really to start privatising Italy's culture. The government hopes that Patrimonio will yield millions, if not billions of euros. It hopes that some of these funds can be used for Mr Berlusconi's pet project, a giant bridge between the mainland and Sicily. But for the millions of tourists who flock to Italy each year, the big question will be whether the lights stay on in the Uffizi.



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