A law that aims to protect Italy's cultural heritage—one of the country's biggest assets—may actually put it at risk.


The abandoned Villa Manzoni, a rose-tinted 1920's estate on Rome's leafy Via Cassia, had been ignored for decades. But in February 2003, the building was thrust into the public eye when its owner, the state-operated pensions agency inpdai, sold it to the Carlyle Group, a Washington, D.C.-based private equity company. The building was one of a group of 36 publicly owned properties, located throughout Italy, that was auctioned off by the Berlusconi administration for the knockdown price of $272 million. One of four culturally valuable properties in the lot, the villa fetched approximately $3.5 million. Proceeds went toward the reduction of Italy's $1.64 trillion debt.

Until recently—thanks to a 1939 edict that imposed strict limits on the sale of state-owned properties more than 50 years old—such transactions were almost impossible in Italy. The villa's sale caused a public outcry: citizens feared that the mansion would be rendered forever inaccessible to the public once it passed into private hands, and archaeologists worried about the fate of its surrounding 22-acre archaeological park. Although Rome's city council has now said that it plans to buy back the villa from the Carlyle Group and restore it, many in Italy are concerned that the sale of the Villa Manzoni and other landmarks like it could change the face of the country's cultural and historical landscape for years to come.

Italy's reluctance to privatize its unique cultural heritage goes back to the 11th and 12th centuries, when cities such as Siena and Venice first introduced preservation laws. The principle that "the Republic will preserve the landscape and historic and artistic patrimony of the nation" is also enshrined in the country's 1947 constitution. Italy wouldn't be Italy without "our culture of conservation, our cultural patrimony," writes art historian turned government advisor Salvatore Settis in his book Italia S.p.A. (Italy Inc.), a critique of the country's recent cultural policies. If Siena is still recognizably medieval and Venice lacks skyscrapers, he points out, it is thanks to the country's tradition of publicly regulated preservation.

Yet the center-right and center-left administrations of the past few years have enacted legislation allowing publicly owned properties to be sold under increasingly lenient restrictions. The government was able to sell the Villa Manzoni in part because of the establishment in 2002 of Patrimonio S.p.A., an agency set up by the economics ministry for the management and sale of public goods.

But that leaves lots of room for finger-pointing. The current economics ministry claims that the sale of cultural assets to the Carlyle Group was permitted by a September 2000 decree made by former minister of culture Giovanna Melandri, part of the center-left government that was in power until 2001. Melandri vehemently denies the accusation. As she tells it, her decree allowed for the sale of publicly owned, culturally valuable properties only if the new owners agreed to restore their purchases and open them to the public. "There can be single, isolated cases in which a bank or entrepreneur gives back culturally interesting goods to the public—but the current government simply aims to make money," she says.

Certainly, there has been no talk of the Carlyle Group restoring its acquisitions for the good of the nation. Besides the Villa Manzoni, the group snapped up two historic palazzi in Reggio-Emilia, dating from the 17th and early 20th centuries, and part of the Hotel Colombia, in the center of Genoa. Each of these properties has since been rented or sold to a third party, presumably for the benefit of investors in the Carlyle Group.

Culture minister Giuliano Urbani has repeatedly emphasized the need to prevent selling such properties, even though this seems to have placed him in conflict with members of his own government, most notably Italy's treasurer, Giulio Tremonti, whose economics ministry engineered last year's sales. Hoping to stop further controversial transactions, Urbani announced legislation in February requiring documentation of the historic and artistic worth of a reported15,000structures throughout the country. Buildings will be designated for assessment in groups over the next three years, following requirements laid out under the "New Code for Cultural and Landscape Goods," a more comprehensive law adopted this May.

According to Roberto Cecchi, the culture ministry's director general for architectural heritage and landscape, the census will divide properties into three categories: those of clear cultural interest, which cannot be sold; those that fall into a gray area, that can be sold with restrictions linked to future use; and those of no cultural interest, which can be sold. The ministry will determine whether culturally interesting assets should remain under public ownership or be deemed saleable. "Only those assets of no cultural interest can be freely sold," emphasizes Cecchi. At first glance, this new legislation appears to have resolved loopholes that allowed buildings such as the Villa Manzoni to pass into private hands.

But organizations including the cultural watchdog group Patrimonio SOS and the International Association of Classical Archaeology worry that Italy's run-down soprintendenze (local government departments), which are charged with conducting the census, lack the human and material reserves needed to complete the task, since once they are assigned a group of buildings to assess (using a checklist of 23 criteria), state and regional cultural overseers have only 120 days to provide the required documentation. Under Italian law, failure to meet this deadline for any property would imply that it was of no cultural worth and could be sold off.

Emanuele Pellegrini at Patrimonio SOS, however, contends that the soprintendenze actually have only 30 days out of the 120 to complete their inventories. "We don't have enough time to do proper studies. How do they think we can get through this with the resources currently available?" says Irene Berlingò, vice director of the Lazio region's superintendency, which is reportedly assessing seven properties now, including the 19th-century Palazzo Blumensthil, on the Tiber River, and the ancient Mecenate Auditorium.

Cecchi thinks that such fears are exaggerated. The code, he says, allows each superintendency to choose how many properties it's able to deal with at once. "It's hard to imagine they'll go over the deadline," he states.

For the moment, all eyes are on a May 2004 list of 39 properties and 11 prisons—including several of historical and cultural interest—to be auctioned by Patrimonio S.p.A. These properties are in the process of being scrutinized for cultural or historic worth by the culture ministry, as mandated by the new law. While associations like Patrimonio SOS fear that Tremonti's desire to fill the country's coffers could override cultural concerns, others—including Melandri—believe that major monuments with historical value will likely not be sold.

Thanks to both political and nonpolitical opposition, the government has stopped selling—or is at least being more careful about selling—goods of historical and cultural interest.The Colosseum and the Uffizi won't be traded in any day soon, but it remains to be seen whether this controversial new code will preserve Italy's lesser known monuments and buildings.

Valerie Waterhouse is the Italy correspondent for Travel + Leisure.