When famed polish movie director Roman Polanski signed up to make the film Pompeii in 2007 a now stalled big-budget epic about the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 Italy, home of the Pompeii ruins, was his first choice for shooting. But the production ended up moving to Spain, since tough-minded Italian officials typically object to film crews' trampling over the archaeological site and the Spanish government beat out Italy with a cheaper offer.
In today's feeble economy, Italian officials might have tried harder to cut a deal. As the euro-zone crisis has deepened and forced larger budget cuts in debt-ridden Italy, more local officials are turning to private investors to help prop up the country's crumbling archaeological treasures. Companies have a long history of helping fund the restoration of Italian ruins like Pompeii and Herculaneum. But now in Italy, where heritage sites have long been governed by strict rules to protect their integrity, corporations are capitalizing on the growing need for funding with bigger-than-ever demands in exchange for their help, from plastering corporate logos across ancient landmarks to securing the rights to print images of ruins on fashion accessories. The deals are a boon for Italy's cash-strapped Culture Ministry, but they're also raising concerns that commercial interests are overpowering cultural ones. "The protection of our cultural heritage is the responsibility of the state," says Giulia Rodano, a councilwoman for the Lazio region around Rome. "Private interventions can't be a substitute."
Italy's latest round of belt tightening comes after years of cuts to its cultural budget under former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who reduced cultural spending by $1.7 billion over three years. According to Roberto Cecchi, Under Secretary at the Culture Ministry, Italy now devotes 0.2% of its national budget to culture, compared with 2.2% in France, a global leader in national cultural spending.
The neglect is taking its toll on classical wonders across the country. In recent years, slabs of mortar have fallen off the Colosseum, Rome's nearly 2,000-year-old amphitheater, endangering tourists. Part of the ceiling of Roman Emperor Nero's Golden Palace built in the 1st century A.D. collapsed in 2010, destroying its ornate gilding and a gallery housed beneath. Walls are buckling in ancient Pompeii, and Renaissance palaces in Florence are drooping. It's a grave problem for a country with more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other nation and a steady stream of some 45 million tourists stampeding through each year. Tourism accounts for roughly 10% of Italy's GDP. "We don't have just a few monuments scattered around the land," says Cecchi. "The whole cloth of our country is woven with heritage."
Local officials like Marco Zambuto, mayor of the Sicilian city of Agrigento, are upping the ante for restoration funding. He wants to auction off rights to the commercial use of images of Agrigento's world-famous Valley of the Temples, which would allow companies like Louis Vuitton and Versace to print them on a line of clothing in exchange for help with the valley's preservation. "It's an idea that came out of a state of necessity," says Zambuto. "We don't have the funds for the basic needs of our citizens. But we do have these cultural resources that could be put to use."
Similar ideas across the country have already had takers, putting Italy at the forefront of commercializing monuments. In Venice, the clothing company Diesel has sponsored the restoration of the Rialto Bridge. And the city's famous Bridge of Sighs, where the condemned once crossed from the Doge's Palace to prisons across the canal, spent most of 2010 covered with giant billboards advertising the works of a bank foundation. That year, says Cecchi, Venice received just $260,000 from the national budget to spend on preservation. "It's understandable that they leaped at the first sponsor that arrived," he says.
Cecchi, who was charged with the emergency preservation of the Colosseum after the first chunks of ceilings began falling in 2010, invited companies to bid on the estimated $33 million restoration project with proposals for what they wanted in return. Low-cost Irish airline Ryanair and Italian real estate fund Fimit asked for the right to drape the ancient arena's walls from top to bottom with advertisements. But the winner was Diego Della Valle, president of Italian shoemaker Tod's, who pledged not to advertise on the amphitheater's walls, although he can publicize elsewhere. "We didn't want big ads," says Cecchi. "With that, we could have found 50 sponsors." Della Valle says he feels "a duty for those who have the possibility ... to help Italy and at the same time strengthen our real heritage."
Hardcore conservationists are skeptical. Michele Trimarchi, a professor at the University of Bologna, says ad hoc private fundraising isn't a reliable way to preserve heritage sites, which require steady investment year after year. "Big sponsors can only be a small part of the story," he says. "We need to look for a different relationship between culture and the community." Privatizing monuments can go too far. Archaeologists have criticized the Albanian government for the damage inflicted after it leased out its historic castles, which led to commercial ventures like on-site restaurants and mobile-phone towers. And a 127-year-old landmark cinema privatized by the Turkish government was shut down last year to make way for a shopping mall.
The commercial deals are bound to increase as ruins continue to crumble. Years of careless government oversight of Pompeii which needs an estimated $360 million to undo damage from pollution, water, vandalism, theft and neglect has prompted calls to privatize the entire city. The Naples Industrialists' Union, which wants to develop a ring of hotels, shops and parks around the site, says its proposal has attracted a consortium of 2,500 interested French companies. In January, Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov offered to buy the ruins of the famed Temple of Zeus in the Valley of the Temples. Zambuto dismissed the idea of a foreigner's buying ruins as "simply unthinkable," but he encouraged foreigners to manage and rent the site for private events. Just what an overrun ancient ruin needs: more foot traffic.