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Italy, Land of Art Treasures Just Out of Visitors’ View

Several times this summer, the usual throng of Japanese, German and American tourists has made the pilgrimage from Rome to Tivoli to see the villa of the Roman emperor Hadrian only to be turned away by a sign saying: “Closed for lack of personnel.” Although there are 43 guards assigned to the villa, the staff had trouble mustering the minimum of seven needed to open the gates.

The same scene has been played out across Italy this summer at dozens of major monuments and museums. Even the Roman Forum, the heart of ancient Rome, has been forced to shut its gates on occasion. As the weather heats up and the tourists arrive in force, the guards needed to watch over Italy’s art treasures simply vanish.

Italy’s most widely visited museum, the Uffizi in Florence, has had to keep about a third of its rooms closed during the tourist season. Each day, curators count up the number of guards who have bothered to show up to work, and calculate how many rooms they can open and for how long. Tourists can still see Leonardo and Botticelli, but forget about Bronzino, Perugino, Giorgione or Bellini. The museum crisis is becoming as much an Italian summer ritual as the Palio horse race in Siena or the Spoleto Music Festival.

The phantom museum guards are only the most obvious byproduct of the bloated and sclerotic bureaucracy that governs Italy’s national museum system. Museums here have virtually no autonomy, and every decision, from restoring a painting to hiring an extra worker, must pass through the Ministry of Culture in Rome. Moreover, the ministry is subject to the whims and dizzying intrigues of Italy’s continual Government crises: there have been five ministers in the last five years, which means that important decisions are often held up for months.

The result: crumbling buildings, filthy paintings, lack of catalogues and research, endless restoration projects and frequent thefts. Things have reached the point that 49 percent of Italy’s 1,673 museums are currently closed — and this number does not include the ones that close on the odd day when no one shows up for work.

“The problem is not a lack of personnel,” says Senator Luigi Covatta, undersecretary of the Ministry of Culture and the man responsible for running the museum system. “There are plenty of guards. The problem is that they are state employees who enjoy a whole series of privileges.”

Like all state employees, museum guards are entitled by law to two weeks of thermal baths above and beyond their usual seven weeks of paid vacation. Others disappear for weeks or months at a time, thanks to medical certificates. And when Senator Covatta threatened to fire custodians at the Brera in Milan for refusing to observe union work rules, he was taken to court for anti-union activity. The case is pending.

The situation at the Brera encapsulates the problem. In the Alice in Wonderland world of Italian bureaucracy, the museum’s dearth of custodians actually worsened after their number was nearly tripled in 1986. “At the Brera in 1986, 40 custodians managed to keep open 38 rooms; now in 1991, with 108 guards, they can only keep open 27 rooms,” says Senator Covatta.

Last year, museum guards at the Brera were absent for a total of 8,673 days, three months apiece. Because they are state run, northern Italian museums like the Brera hire guards through a Government system that gives preference to unemployed workers from southern Italy, most of whom consider assignment to cities like Milan extreme hardship. Guards generally make only about $1,000 a month, and those from the south frequently cannot afford to take their families with them. As a result, they return home at the first opportunity.

For many years the Brera had been open only in the morning and was able to show only about two-thirds of its collection. The increase in guards in 1986, instead of solving the problem, began the battle of Brera. The new guards complained about the lack of ventilation in the museum, called in a local health authority and obtained an extraordinary concession: for every hour of work, they would get a half-hour break. This was called decanting, following the practice of allowing wine to breathe. With the decanting policy in place, along with thermal baths and sick days, the museum abandoned its plan to stay open in the afternoon.

This spring, Senator Covatta and the Brera’s director decided to try again. In May, the custodians’ union agreed to abandon the decanting policy. But the guards at the Brera rebelled and threatened to take over the museum. According to their spokesman, Stefano Esposito, in an interview with Panorama magazine, the Government and the national union had “signed an agreement over our heads, without even consulting us.” The next day, the Ministry of Culture ordered the museum closed and threatened to man it with volunteers and conscientious objectors. The wildcat strike lasted for only a day.

For the moment, a truce has been reached. The guards have agreed to work in the afternoon starting in the fall, and the museum is trying to meet their demand for an employee cafeteria.

But the custodian problem is only a symptom. “The underlying problem is an antiquated, state-run system,” says Senator Covatta. “The individual museums have no autonomy. Furthermore, our museums are in beautiful but very old palaces, whose restoration is complex and expensive.”

For virtually every expense, the director of a museum must turn to the regional superintendent of culture, who, in turn, must turn to Rome. “Sometimes by the time the money arrives it’s too late to spend it, and it has to go back to Rome,” says Federico Zeri, an art historian and a onetime trustee of the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif. Money appropriated in a given year must be spent by the end of that year, so that if funds don’t reach a museum by late in the year, they have to be returned to the Government. As a result, many building and restoration projects start and stop with the unpredictable ebb and flow of funds.

Work at the Gallery of the Villa Borghese in Rome has dragged on for more than 10 years, making its masterly collection of Bernini, Caravaggio and Titian difficult, and often impossible, to see. The National Roman Museum, with Rome’s principal collection of ancient art, has been mostly closed for the same period. Work proceeds on both with no clear end in sight.

The Ministry of Culture is only one of the national bureaucracies with which museums must contend. It distributes funds, but the Ministry of Finance is in charge of collecting the money museums make in admissions and sales. “A museum like the Uffizi does not even have a balance sheet,” says Senator Covatta. “It has no control over what it earns.” For this reason, museum directors have no economic incentive to attract the public, put on special exhibitions, publish catalogues or stay open longer hours.

Also, because the Ministry of Culture is low in the political pecking order, museums often have less space than they need — or even than they are allotted. The national museum at the Barberini Palace, with perhaps Rome’s most important painting collection, has about half the space it is entitled to because it shares a floor with an army social club. “This club, which does nothing but give parties, was supposed to be evicted in 1951, and here we are 40 years later,” says Mr. Zeri, the art historian. The reason, say some, is simple: the Minister of Defense has more power than the Minister of Culture.

Senator Covatta, although a political appointee, favors decentralization and privatization of the system. His idea is that the largest museums would become almost completely autonomous, each run by its own separate foundation. The works of art would remain in the public domain, but such services as guarding the museum and running the bookstore would be contracted out to private companies.

“Italy doesn’t seem to realize that art and antiquities are the country’s greatest resource — what oil is to Saudi Arabia,” says Adriano D’Offizi, director of Hadrian’s villa. “Four hundred thousand people come through here every year, and we could double the number easily and do it properly if we had the means.”

So far, reactions to Senator Covatta’s decentralization plan have been positive, but it has not yet entered the political arena. As he well knows, the Government could fall at any minute, and in the division of spoils among the governing parties, his job could be bargained away.

– August 25, 1991

As published in The New York Times

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