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Financial Crisis Leads Many European Nations to Consider Commercial Measures to Secure Restoration Funds

In the wake of extreme financial pressures, the local Venetian government has made a painful and somewhat desperate decision; it will put the Palazzo Manfrin–one of the floating city’s most magnificent palaces–up for sale for $20.5 million. The 17th century five-story home, widely considered one of the city’s most important architectural sites, which also once boasted a large collection of artworks by masters such as Raphael and Bellini, is now crumbling. Although clearly in dire need of repair, cuts to government budgets have ensured that there is not enough money to fund restoration of the palace. Rather than face certain disintegration of the landmark, the government made the difficult choice to put the structure up for sale.

This measure follows a recent trend of turning to private sponsorship and commercial initiatives to secure funds to preserve historical relics and sites. Two years of financial crisis in Europe have led to falling tax revenues and slashed budgets, while at the same time, historical buildings, churches, monuments, bridges, barracks, archaeological ruins, and other sites are disintegrating from weather erosion, pollution, the constant stream of tourists, and sheer age. Local governments, searching for ways to afford upkeep, are attempting to combat budget shortfalls by hanging ads, selling usage rights, and in some cases, putting the structures themselves on the market.

There are many examples across Europe of such measures. In France, the caretakers of Versailles agreed to let two hotels open on palace grounds and proposed licensing the image of the building for use on luxury watches. In Spain, planners eager for more tax revenue approved the construction of an office tower in the historic city center of Seville near the Gothic cathedral where Christopher Columbus is buried, ignoring UNESCO threats to disqualify the city as a World Heritage site if the project proceeded. In Greece, the government voted this year to open sites such as the Parthenon, the Poseidon Temple, and Delphi to cinematographers willing to pay per-minute fees.

Debates as to how the Italian government should handle these issues are heated. Fausta Bressani, Director of Cultural Affairs for the region of Veneto, which encompasses Venice, stated that the government “is conscious that the perception of this is not so positive… But our priority is to save the structure.” However, there has also been a public backlash toward this attitude. Citizen groups have staged protests and filed lawsuits in an effort to stop officials from selling out Italy’s cultural treasures. Alessandra Mottola Molfino, national president of Italia Nostra, a cultural heritage group that has campaigned against such projects, condemns these actions. She stated, “Our monuments are being degraded by these exchanges of money between private and public powers. Are we so poor that we have to sell our grandfathers?” Attempting to take a more balanced approach, UNESCO culture chief Francesco Bandrin–a Venice native–has said that selling ads is “an acceptable measure” to fund conservation efforts at a time of financial difficulty but that certain conditions must be met, such as respecting the dignity of the monuments and informing the public of how the money will be spent.” However, he added that he did “not think that all these principles were fully respected in Venice, where there are been several cases of excess.”

It is a difficult conundrum for many European nations. National cultural treasures cannot be preserved without significant influx of funds, but where should the line be drawn at how those funds are procured? Bressani deftly describes the crux of the issue and the balance that must be struck: “We are facing a major crisis, and the future is still uncertain. But I do not believe it’s impossible to find private sponsors who respect that these buildings are cultural products.”

Source: The Washington Post