Things are seldom what they seem
skim milk masquerades as cream
(William S. Gilbert)
Published on 27 August 2011
Feature Originally published 3 Decvember 2010
As budget cuts across Europe put heritage under pressure, some say it should be a spur towards better management
The 12th-century arched doorway is about all that remains intact of the church of Saint Peter at Becerril del Campo, in the central Spanish province of Palencia.
The doors themselves are gone. The roof has largely disappeared. Water floods in and the inside is full of rubbish. "Deterioration of its nave increases daily, virtually all the baroque plasterwork and vaults having already been lost," reports the Hispania Nostra conservation group.
Across the Mediterranean on the Greek island of Kea earlier this year, a 4th-century BC tower that had been the subject of repeated warnings from the resident archaeological service partially collapsed right before the eyes of locals.
The disintegration this week of three more walls at Pompeii made news around the world. But the Castilian church and the Aegean tower are reminders that it is not the only place in southern Europe where archaeological, cultural and historical treasures are at risk.
Traditionally, lack of maintenance was the result of an imbalance between southern Europe's vast cultural patrimony and the comparatively limited resources at the disposal of its governments. Italy has more Unesco world heritage sites than any other country and Spain is next on the list.
One of the three ancient walls which collapsed in Pompeii this week: This follows the ruin of a frescoed house in the archaeological site last month. Photograph: Napoli/EMPICS
But now, after several decades of relative prosperity and increased funding, the area faces a new threat: governments from the Atlantic to the Aegean are slashing the budgets of their culture and heritage ministries as they struggle to rebalance their public finances and contain their debts.
Statistics are notoriously tangled in this area: spending on heritage is often lumped in with funding for the arts and in Spain particularly funding for conservation is spread between several layers of government. But some idea of the scale of the cuts can be gauged in more centralised Portugal which passed a 2011 austerity budget last week that hacked back national government spending on culture by 9%.
In Spain, heritage groups say funding for culture in some regions has already dropped by a third. At the same time, the bursting of the country's property bubble has taken away an important source of cash for the conservation of old buildings – fees paid by developers wanting to put up new ones.
"If that money is not coming in, then local government argues that it must spend on people, not buildings," says architect and campaigner, Javier Ruiz.
Last month, museums, art galleries and heritage sites in Italy were closed by a one-day strike in protest at government plans to lop €280m (£238m) from the central government's culture budget over the next three years.
The president of the heritage group Italia Nostra, Alessandra Mottola Molfino, calls the cuts "a mortal blow to our heritage". But do they have to be?
In Greece, at the centre of the European debt crisis, the culture ministry said this week it was turning to Brussels to make up the shortfall, appealing for €540m to restore archaeological sites and monuments and renovate museums, many of which have been forced to close because of the crisis.
Elsewhere, it is argued that the crisis could act as a spur to greater efficiency on the part of the authorities and a more constructive involvement of the private sector. "It is not about money", says Roger Abravanel, a Milan-based author and free-market campaigner Professional curators – people who not only understand about culture but about making it available to the public – do not exist here. In Italy, we have a completely different model in which the authorities sub-contract to companies who organised exhibitions."
A conservationist who asked not to be quoted said Pompeii was anything but short of funds. "Since 1997, the [central government agency that runs the site] has had a lot of cash because it gets the ticket money. But it does not have sufficiently responsive management systems. Staffing comes under the direct control of the ministry in Rome and it is rigid. In 20 years, there has been no regeneration, with the result that you have officials there working according to conservation guidelines from the 1970s."
The crisis is also turning a spotlight on the often uneasy relationship in southern Europe between government and business. Mottola Molfino notes that if the private sector is taken to include both individuals and firms, then as a whole it is supportive of Italy's heritage. "Half of all Italy's museums are kept open by private initiatives," she says. Her own organisation, Italia Nostra, is run entirely on a voluntary basis.
Yet involving companies has long proved difficult. For many years it was assumed this was because Italy did not offer the generous tax breaks available to would-be sponsors in English-speaking countries.
Mottola Molfino says new rules introduced over the past 10 years could do with simplification. But, like many in southern Europe, she remains wary of moves by the state to hand over to business responsibility for the preservation of the nation's cultural patrimony.
"It ought to be a duty and an honour," she says. The idea that heritage conservation is essentially a matter for government would also seem to be widespread among business leaders who have anyway seen their profits cut back by the global economic crisis.
There is probably no more famous monument in southern Europe than the Colosseum. But, like many other ancient Roman buildings it is in urgent need of restoration.
Last summer, Italy's culture ministry, anticipating the cuts that were coming its way, announced it was seeking offers to part-sponsor a €25m programme of works. The head of the Tod's leatherware business, Diego Della Valle, was the first tycoon to step forward.
On Thursday, it emerged he was the only one. Della Valle bravely announced that his company would foot the entire bill. Otherwise, he said, Italy risked "another Pompeii".
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