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Fall of the Italian Empire: Protecting Italian Art and Cultural Heritage with a Smaller Budget

By Nora Choueiri

When people think of Italy, they think of Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo, the country with the dozens of UNESCO heritage sites (49 at last count), and a nation with very strict art and cultural heritage laws. One does not generally think of art and cultural heritage sites falling apart because of lack of funding. But that has become the harsh reality in a country suffering from the European economic crisis. With the current recession, the Italian government has significantly cut its cultural budget in order to fight down Italy’s $2.5 trillion (yes, with a ‘T’) public debt. The heavy financial burden has left the country without the funds necessary to restore, let alone maintain, its national heritage. Even more traditional forms of fundraising, such as through ticket sales, are not enough to keep up with the demand for restoration and preservation. As a result, Italy has had to come up with other solutions.Screen shot 2014-02-10 at 11.27.26 PM

One unique and very contemporary solution to the problem: use social media and let the people decide.  Under a program called “L’Arte Aiuta l’Arte” or “Art Helping Art,” the Italian government selected eight works of art that it deemed ‘important’ to Italy’s cultural heritage and in need of restoration.  Using Facebook as a tool, the government posted pictures of the pieces online and asked its citizens to vote to determine which one of the eight should be restored first. The painting titled “Madonna con il Bambino/Madonna and child” by Pietro Perugino emerged as the winner, with the government promising to restore the remaining seven paintings in the future.

Even architectural bastions like Italy’s iconic Colosseum are not immune from the scarcity of funding, and private funding is one of the other solutions that has surfaced to fill the void left by the government. The Colosseum had been in need of restoration for years—chunks of marble had literally been falling off the structure— when work finally began in December 2013.  However it is not the Italian government footing the $33 million bill, but rather Diego Della Valle, CEO and founder of the Italian luxury fashion brand Tod’s.  The Colosseum is far from the only important Italian site in need of restoration, and many others throughout Italy are suffering from lack of funding, including the ancient city of Pompeii, where it is increasingly commonplace for beams and walls of historical buildings to collapse.

The Italian government’s financial woes have led them through emergency decree to sell off around 350 properties that include historic buildings in Rome, Milan and Venice. Included among the properties is Orsini Castle, a medieval fort built for Pope Nicholas III in the thirteenth century (it could be yours for a cool 15 million euros!). This raises the question of how, despite Italy’s rigorous cultural heritage laws, these properties could legally be sold to private owners?

The question is especially pertinent when considering the recent case of contemporary Italian artist Francesco Vezzoli who found himself in a great deal of legal trouble when he tried to export a dilapidated and deconsecrated old Italian church as part of an art exhibit at MOMA PS1, to be titled “The Church of Vezzoli.” Vezzoli had contracted to buy nineteenth century church ruins from the owner for around $100,000 after he found the roofless structure for sale online in the southern Italian town of Montegiordano.

The church was to be reconstructed in the courtyard of the MOMA’s PS1 exhibition space in Queens and repurposed to house a series of Vezzoli’s video artworks as the third and final phase of the artist’s international retrospective called “The Trinity.” However as the church was being dismantled, a passerby complained to the Ministry of Culture, effectively stopping the dismantling and export of the church. Vezzoli then found himself being investigated for criminal conduct, with prosecutors examining whether to charge him with trying to export items of artistic and cultural value without the proper authorization, a serious crime in Italy that carries a fine or jail sentence of up to four years.

Vezzoli, represented by Jacobacci Associates attorney Massimo Sterpi, alleges he acquired the church with the blessing of the town’s mayor, and that in an examination of the estate in 1988, the regional superintendent had not found the church to have any cultural value as a monument. Further, Vezzoli contends that the roofless church was falling downhill, and that “[w]e almost felt we were doing some good” by re-erecting and repurposing the church at MOMA PS1. No matter the outcome of the investigation, it is too late for the MOMA PS1 exhibit, which had to be canceled. Though Vezzoli’s project was certainly unconventional (not only for national heritage reasons but religious ones as well), one cannot help but ask what would’ve been better, leaving the forgotten structure in its state of decay until it almost inevitably collapsed or allowing a renowned albeit provocative Italian artist tour it in some of the most notorious museums in the world?

It is undeniable that today Italy is suffering from a lack of funds, and neither government funding nor private donors are able to keep up with demands of restoring and preserving Italy’s rich art and cultural heritage. Yet despite the budget crunch, Italy still appears to be monitoring the international trafficking of its cultural heritage. Most recently, Italy demanded the immediate return of about 700 ancient objects, ranging from jewelry to sculptures that were part of the private collection of now bankrupt British antiquities dealer Robin Symes. The Italian government believes that these items were taken from Italy illegally. The accounting firm BDO was planning on selling off Symes’s collection in order to pay taxes owed by Robin Symes Ltd., but Italy has warned that if it does not receive detailed information about the status of each of the 700 items, that it may sue BDO in the United Kingdom under the Dealing in Cultural Offenses Act. Though the importance of a nation monitoring the illegal trade of its antiquities cannot be denied, one cannot help but wonder how much a potential international lawsuit would cost the already cash-strapped Italian government, and given the examples of “L’Arte Aiuta l’Arte,” the Colosseum, and Pompeii, whether Italy would even have the funds necessary to ensure the antiquities were properly cared for were they to eventually acquire them.

About the Author: Nora Choueiri, is a third year law student at Fordham University School of Law interested in art, cultural heritage, IP and international law, and is currently a legal intern at the Samuelson-Glushko Intellectual Property and Information Law Clinic. She may be reached at

Disclaimer: This article is intended as general information, not legal advice, and is no substitute for seeking representation.