Italy's Luxury Bailout

By Nadeau, Barbie Latza | Newsweek, July 25, 2011 | Go to article overview

Italy's Luxury Bailout


Nadeau, Barbie Latza, Newsweek


Byline: Barbie Latza Nadeau

With its economy in tatters, the country was unable to preserve its cultural heritage. Then the moguls stepped in.

The economic crisis that has swept Europe and brought Greece to the brink of chaos is claiming Italy as its latest victim. As stocks and bonds have come under pressure in recent weeks, European finance ministers have huddled with furrowed brows and wrinkled foreheads in emergency meetings, putting even more pressure on Italian officials, who, in response, have announced an ambitious austerity package to the tune of almost $68 billion.

Like the economy itself--though less noticed abroad--Italy's ancient monuments and cultural heritage are crumbling. Venice is sinking, the famed Duomo in Florence is cracked and flaking, and Norman-era churches in Sicily have been boarded up. That ancient structures degrade over time is hardly surprising. But Italy's cultural woes are not restricted to crumbling travertine. Since 2008, there have been 15 major archeo-emergencies in Pompeii alone, and scores more across the country, caused by neglect and increasing budget cuts.

The roof of Nero's Golden Palace in Rome caved in last year, crushing a gallery and destroying a gilded ceiling. At the Colosseum, three large chunks of mortar fell to the ground just hours before the venerable theater opened to the public. And the ancient city that volcanoes failed to finish off might be done in by a lack of money: in November the 2,000-year-old House of Gladiators in Pompeii collapsed into a heap of rubble.

Italy has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country in the world, yet its culture budget has been cut almost in half over the last three years, from $603 million to $340 million, and now barely covers maintenance or preservation.

"Whoever thinks that cutting the culture budget in a country like Italy is the solution doesn't understand anything," says Italy's Minister of Culture Giancarlo Galan, warning that cutting funds further will not just imperil masterworks and architectural treasures, but lead to more bad headlines.

Earlier this month Italy's national patrimony association, Italia Nostra, sent up an emergency flare, calling on UNESCO to put Venice on its danger list to try to stop the rampant destruction. "You want a Venice without the lagoons, keep cutting our funding," says Lidia Fersuoch, president of the Venetian Italia Nostra chapter. "We've got uncontrollable tourism -- and the Grand Canal has become an aquatic superhighway for boats. Yet no one invests in any restoration or maintenance. At this rate, there will soon be nothing left."

At stake is not just sentimental attachment to national monuments. Italy's millennia of temporal riches draw more than 45 million visitors every year, making tourism the country's primary industry and accounting for 8.6 percent of the gross domestic product. Italy, as a brand, doesn't just denote quality and beauty, but translates into euros.

Few people understand the power of branding as well as Diego Della Valle, head of the luxury-leather-goods company Tod's, and his friend, Ferrari president Luca Cordero di Montezemolo. Acting like modern versions of the Renaissance Medicis, they are stepping in to save Italy's heritage with cash donations, sponsorships, and the power of their social network.

At La Scala in Milan on a recent summer afternoon, the sound of tapping hammers and buzzing chain saws echoed between the decaying walls with joyful fortissimo as Della Valle settled into a red-velvet chair in a mezzanine row.

The construction noise--more than the faint hum from invisible wind instruments playing somewhere backstage--was music to his ears; the shoe magnate has given more than $7 million to the storied opera house--the largest donation in the theater's 233-year history, and a gift that will keep the singers singing for a few seasons yet, despite a budget crunch that otherwise threatens Italy's famed patrimony. …

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