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What Berlusconi has done for Italian culture

Domenico Pacitti replies to Gillian Harper in Wellington, New Zealand

Dear Domenico,

I write for an arts journal and am currently preparing an article on the Uffizi Gallery in Florence. It seems that Berlusconi has plans to double the gallery over the next 3 years. How would you assess Berlusconi's contribution to the arts since he took office? What do you think Berlusconi has done for culture so far? What reasons do you think Berlusconi has for expanding the Uffizi and is it part of his ever increasing hold over all things Italian? Is he a good or bad force in the arts?

–– Gillian Harper, Wellington, New Zealand

Dear Gillian,

The official reasons for expanding the Uffizi are fairly obvious: accommodating the 800 works of art until now kept in storage due to lack of space, succeeding in realising the project where previous governments have failed and national pride in outdoing the Louvre. Berlusconi does have an authentic desire to carry out major projects and reforms that are genuinely needed – but always with an ominous twist in the tail to his own advantage.

The Uffizi project can only be properly understood within the wider framework of Berlusconi’s controversial plans to privatise Italy’s enormous cultural patrimony for profit. The relevant law was passed in June 2002 and, as you no doubt know, it met with strong protests from international art institutions – mainly for the wrong reasons since they hadn’t understood the full implications of the document. Fears that major monuments and works of art might simply be sold off to highest bidders were soon allayed by Berlusconi. Since then Italian media coverage on the issue has been virtually nonexistent and this now appears to be matched in the international press fairly generally. A close reading of the 2002 law shows that it falls squarely within the ignominious Italian political tradition of legislating in such a way as to exploit deliberate loopholes at a later date – along the same sort of perplexing lines as the state-owned giants IRI and ENI. As it stands, the law is a precise blueprint for traditional Italian-style political corruption with the twin companies Patrimonio and Infrastrutture also providing a purpose-built vehicle for the manipulation of the national debt, estimated to be the world’s third highest at well over 100 per cent of the gross national product.

So, it’s not that the Uffizi and its art treasures are in immediate danger of being sold off for cash. The danger – or perhaps plan – is that they would fall indirectly into the hands of private companies as securities or guarantees for the express accumulation of debt. The other probability is that following evaluation so-called “minor” works, which in any other country would be considered first rank, would automatically qualify for being put on sale. Meanwhile Berlusconi will be doing his best to ensure that the Uffizi expansion obtains international approval, which will conveniently distract attention from the darker financial acrobatics that are on the way in the longer term.

The short term may be rosy for art lovers and visitors to Italian museums and galleries, but the longer term appears potentially disastrous. The world’s art institutions should therefore monitor this situation very closely and urge Italy to produce more stringent legislation in order to remove this very real risk.

You ask what Berlusconi has done for culture so far. The answer is that the only culture Berlusconi has so far made any active contribution to is the Italian culture of corruption. For he has shown how to avoid imprisonment by employing the Italian creative art of passing legislation designed to annul criminal offences retroactively. On the more strictly aesthetic side, he has just made a major contribution to the long-running destruction of the Italian landscape by introducing an amnesty which allows unauthorised buildings to stand provided the owners pay fines. Berlusconi bears the distinction of having exploited this standard Italian government measure for raising emergency cash with more devastating effects than his predecessors.

Is Berlusconi a good or bad force in the arts? In the short term and in a narrow and limited sense good. But he is planting the seeds of potential disaster for the future.

–– Domenico Pacitti, June 26 2004

This article first appeared in JUST Response on June 26 2004.