Thursday, August 09, 2007

Italy - Its past in the present

God, this is depressing.

The story is the same throughout Italy. A combination of incompetent government, lacklustre industry and a general refusal to pay taxes has left a deep scar on the country's finances. The country's crushing debts have forced the Bel Paese to pimp its cultural gems to the highest bidders.


In Milan, H&M, a clothing store, bought the right to plaster a 100ft advert starring Madonna on the front of the Duomo during its renovations...

Rome recently allowed Valentino, a fashion designer, to throw a party around the Ara Pacis, a gleaming white marble altar from 13bc celebrating Augustus's victories in Spain and France.

In Tuscany, a whole hill-top village was sold to a German tourist company to become a holiday camp.

Evidently, Berlusconi had someone do the numbers and they came to £1,300 billion. That's the value of Italy's 'cultural assets'. So they figured, what difference is a few less going to make?

Mind you, don't underestimate the scale of the problem. The sheer quantity of Past-in-the-present in Italy is far beyond what any other country is responsible for. Each of us could name 100 buildings, landscapes or objects, but for each one of them, there are probably 1,000, or 10,000 more. And most of it is rotting.

Because I am suspicious of an over-attachment to what is no more, I have often wondered if the effort to preserve it all would not be self-defeating in the end. It is far beyond the economy of one of the 10 richest countries in the world and the attention required would impoverish the present and the future - I don't mean economically, but culturally, imaginatively. In 1915, Gabriele d'Annunzio, full of futurist zeal, flew over Venice ahead of the Austrian armies dropping lealets in which he exhorted the Venetians to destroy Venice themselves before the Venetians, or time, took all the credit, and to do it as an act of commitment to the future.

Not that I find any pleasure in the thought of Italy denuded of its treasures. It still has so much to give, vastly more than one generation can find. Its past has seeded the present so often before and will do so again in ways we cannot imagine. If, that is, its past is still present. I would suggest that the 'international community' step in to help, except that the behaviour of the 'international community' with other people's money tends to resemble that of Italy. So I'll just get depressed.

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