Every December the elite of Italian society, dressed in fur coats and finery, gather in Milan for the season opener at La Scala. Yet before the curtain rose on this year’s performance of Wagner’s Die Wälkure – a scene that opens with symphonic thunder and lightning – another storm raged outside the famed opera house as police wielded batons and tear gas to fight off protesters.
Despite appearances, the protest was actually in support of opera as the crowd railed against proposed spending cuts by Silvio Berlusconi’s government that threaten Italy’s many cultural institutions – the country currently ranks first with 45 Unesco World Heritage sites to its credit. Inside La Scala, the protesters’ cause was taken up by conductor Daniel Barenboim, who spoke from the orchestra pit and pleaded with Italy’s president, Giorgio Napolitano, who was present, to uphold Article 9 of the country’s constitution that aims to safeguard the “historical and artistic heritage of the nation”.
Noticeably absent from proceedings was Sandro Bondi, Italy’s Culture Minister, who critics argue has been ineffective in protecting museums and archaeological sites, many of which are in need of upkeep. The most visible case of neglect is the ancient city of Pompeii, where recently a 2,000-year-old frescoed building used by gladiators crumbled after heavy rains weakened the foundations.
The event triggered public outrage and plenty of finger-pointing. Many worried about the collapse’s impact on tourism – each year Pompeii alone attracts 2.5 million visitors. The incident at Pompeii also drew attention to a disturbing trend: over the last six years, the Italian state has halved its cultural budget.
In 2010, the government set aside just €148 million for the arts, with Giulio Tremonti, Italy’s Finance Minister, defending the cuts by declaring that “people can’t eat culture” in a recession. With more austerity measures to come, the situation looks dire for a land renowned for its Michelangelo sculptures and Palladian villas.
Even contemporary culture is feeling the pinch. Notwithstanding the dazzling addition of Zaha Hadid’s MAXXI Museum, support for the country’s film industry has been drastically cut, leaving actors to picket on the red carpet at this year’s Rome Film Festival.
The lack of public funding has led to calls for the private sector to step in, although that has brought its own set of problems. In Venice, a recent sponsorship with Coca-Cola saw its advertising completely cover the lagoon city’s iconic Bridge of Sighs. Italian monuments and archaeological sites, many in seismic zones, face rising costs for day-to-day maintenance. “The burden of protecting and conserving the cultural heritage can’t only be on the governments,” says Mounir Bouchenaki, director general of the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property. “There’s a need for expensive technologies to map risks like water flows underground. The private sector can help.”