ROME, Italy — Tourists in Italy today were out of luck as workers at hundreds of museums, archaeological monuments, libraries and cultural sites went on strike.
But the Ministry of Culture hoped the massive labor action in protest of drastic budget cuts would do something to preserve those sites for generations to come.
“The meaning of this strike, which has very large participation, is to say to Italians, ‘Listen, people, wake up. This is our identity,’” said Ilaria Borletti Buitoni, president of the Italian Environmental Fund, a nonprofit group focused on protecting Italy’s heritage.
The proposed cuts include 280 million euros (around $380 million) in direct cuts from the Ministry of Culture’s budget, plus about 800 million euros (about $1 billion) taken from local governments, over the next two years. They bring the proportion of the budget that Italy spends on culture to just 21 cents of every 100 euros. That’s likely to mean layoffs, fewer exhibitions, shorter visiting hours and even the closure of some museums. But it also means the delay of much-needed projects to preserve and restore archaeological and historic sites.
The strike came at a particularly sensitive time for Italy’s Ministry of Culture. Earlier this year the Domus Aurea, or “Golden Palace,” built by the Emperor Nero in Rome closed indefinitely after suffering repeated water damage. This past weekend, the collapse of the 2,000-year-old “House of the Gladiators” at Pompeii shocked the world. The immediate cause of the disaster was heavy rain. The actual cause, however, ran deeper and included mismanagement of funds and a tendency to put off big restoration projects in favor of immediate profit.
Since the Pompeii collapse, angry Italians have called for the resignation of Culture Minister Sandro Bondi along with that of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. And so, dozens of sex and corruption scandals into Berlusconi’s rule, it could be one archaeological calumny that ultimately collapses the government.
But particularly with the new cuts, archaeologists and other experts warn, more deterioration looms.
“Everything. Everything is at risk. We talk a lot about Pompeii because Pompeii is the most-visited archaeological site in Italy. But there are, every day, situations like Pompeii, and you don’t hear about these,” said Tsao Cevoli, president of Italy’s National Association of Archaeologists.
Those ruins that are more minor than Pompeii and the Colosseum (in numbers, if not in importance) are those that preservationists worry most about. In his office in Rome’s historic Palazzo Venezia museum, Adriano La Regina, the former head of Rome’s Ministry of Culture, pulled up photographs of one site that was at risk even before the new budget cuts. The images showed the mausoleum of Marcus Nonius Macrinus, a consul who served the emperors Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius in the second century A.D. Just off Rome’s ancient Via Flaminia, the monument was discovered during a recent construction project.
“It has the same artistic quality as the Arch of Septimius Severus,” one of the most dramatic ruins in Rome’s Forum, La Regina said, tracing his finger along one curlicue of a column’s capital. And it could be pieced back together as a “new” ancient attraction for Rome. Lack of money means that, instead, the monument is much more likely to remain partly underground and unrestored, its unearthed fragments decorating the new buildings’ gardens. “There’s not money for the excavation. It probably will be abandoned,” La Regina said. “But these are the occasions for increasing our patrimony. You find new things and you take care of them. Certainly, you spend money on them, but that money will come back.”
For Italy, the money comes back through tourism. Italy’s government says that tourism contributes one-third to Italy’s overall GNP. Many visitors, if not most, are drawn by Italy’s artistic and cultural heritage; after all, Italy boasts more World Heritage sites than any other country in the world. “People come and visit the country because of the art. They don’t come to see how big our highways are,” Buitoni said. Rome’s Caravaggio exhibit this past year, for example, drew 600,000 people — and about 4 million euros ($5.5 million) — to the city.
Even so, officials said, not only has raising money for culture in Italy always been difficult — it's also gotten harder. La Regina, who served as Rome’s culture minister for nearly 30 years until 2005, said the government has changed its view of culture from seeing it as having value in and of itself, to wanting it to turn a concrete and immediate profit. Called valorizzazione in Italian, the new concept has been “ruinous,” La Regina said. “It has somehow stopped investment in conservation. And so monuments start to collapse.”
Italy spends far less on culture than even its European neighbors. As a percentage of GDP, France spends three times more; Germany, two-and-a-half-times more. Funding had been cut by more than 30 percent in the past seven years alone.
The new budget worsens the situation for the cultural sector. Along with other measures, the government said that the ministry can spend no more than 20 percent of last year’s expenses on exhibitions.
Those familiar with the fragmented nature of Italy's cultural sector say that if anything shows how severe the effects will be, it's that so many institutions actually came together to strike. While nationally administered sites, like the Colosseum, have not closed, 173 municipalities, 134 cultural organizations and 16 national associations signed on to the protest. Some sites, like Turin's Palazzo Madama, will remain open, but free. And still others, including Florence’s Palazzo Vecchio, will close briefly to symbolize solidarity.
The strike's proponents themselves know the money for this year, at least, is certainly gone. But they're not about to give up. "We have to try to stop what the government has decided for next year," Buitoni said. "I consider this as a starting point. If this is successful, we will probably do it again, and for a much longer time."