An elderly nun in “The Great Beauty,” Paolo Sorrentino’s controversial 2013 film, declares that she only eats roots, “because roots are important.”
The line resonates in Italy, where the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum sit alongside modern-day Naples. According to the United Nations World Tourism Organization, Italy is the world’s fifth most-visited country, with 4.77 million arrivals in 2013, the most recent year available. Additionally, Milan and Rome landed in the top 20 of MasterCard’s 2014 Global Destination Cities Index.
But with an economic malaise that has persisted through the governments of several prime ministers, public funds for the maintenance of celebrated landmarks are scarce. In a bid to salvage national treasures from neglect, various private donors have rushed forward with their support.
Some are philanthropic organizations or local church parishes dedicated to restoring the glory of a particular city or town. The banking industry has also been stalwart in its devotion to Italy’s cultural heritage: UniCredit is helping finance restorations for the first-century Verona Arena, and since 1989 Intesa Sanpaolo has contributed to more than a thousand works of art, archeological sites, museums and churches through its Restituzioni project, which the bank’s managing director of artistic heritage, Andrea M. Massari, described as a close, ongoing partnership with the public sector.
Intesa Sanpaolo seeks to restore “also lesser-known works, or those of lesser-known artists, that don’t guarantee media attention but that nevertheless are an integral part of the ‘eco-museum’ that is the wealth of Italy,” Massari said. This year, in honor of Milan, which is hosting the World Exposition, Intesa Sanpaolo is restoring the home of Alessandro Manzoni, where the celebrated author of “The Betrothed” lived from 1813 to 1873. Work begins in March and is expected to be over by the end of summer.
Pietro Celli, a Florence-based lawyer with expertise in cultural heritage issues, said Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi and minister of culture Dario Franceschini — who have been energetically courting private donors — are “very attentive to the potential Italy could have with a more up-to-date management of its cultural heritage, which is still one of the most protected and cared for in the world.”
In this context, donations from a plethora of luxury fashion firms have garnered considerable attention.
The most widely publicized company in this arena is Tod’s, whose outspoken chief executive officer, Diego Della Valle, bestowed 25 million euros in 2010 — about $33 million at average exchange for the period — on Rome’s 2,000-year-old Colosseum, which is now undergoing a complex restoration project that involves water spray cleaning, fillings and the processing of metallic elements, among other operations.
His offer preceded a 2012 legislative change that specified how private sponsors are selected to restore public works, and Della Valle found himself in a hailstorm of criticism over the alleged commercialization of a major landmark.
“It’s a privilege and an honor for me and for my family to be able to contribute to the rescue of one of the most beautiful and important monuments in the world,” Della Valle told WWD. “Unfortunately, Italy isn’t accustomed to models of patronage found in the Anglo-Saxon parts of the world. There is still some skepticism, but I hope that this will change soon.
“Companies, [as well as] private citizens who are fortunate to live comfortably, should give a bit of positivity back to the country,” Della Valle affirmed.
Celli explained that the ninth article of the Italian Constitution assigns the safeguard of the country’s historical and artistic heritage to the state, which must manage maintenance and restorations. A separate article of the constitution specifies that maintaining the value of cultural heritage is both a federal and regional responsibility.
Superintendents at the Ministry of Cultural Assets and Activities and Tourism authorize all restorations of
cultural assets, whether publicly or privately owned. The Ministry also determines which assets are of historical and artistic value and deserving of state protection.
Private citizens and companies can contribute to restorations either through donations of less than 40,000 euros ($45,600 at current exchange), with tax incentives, or by becoming official sponsors, which gives them promotional rights connected with the cultural asset they are supporting.
Even in the case of private sponsorship, public assets must remain public — and the Ministry ensures that the ultimate goal of protecting Italy’s heritage is respected. The 2012 legislative update requires the Ministry to publish project summaries in at least two national dailies and the Italian Republic’s official gazette, set a budget and solicit proposals, before choosing the best bid from a pool of potential sponsors.
“Even when public funds are lacking, it is the State’s responsibility to ensure the protection of Italy’s cultural heritage,” Celli said. “So if there are companies willing to invest — provided that they follow the rules — then the only important thing is to regulate.”
Franca Coin, president of the nonprofit American Friends of Venice Foundation, said she has long believed in the role private donors can play in sustaining Italy’s cultural heritage.
“We’ve tried to get people to understand that the goods we have, the beauty, it belongs to all of us and in equal measure. It’s a very specific message: Even small donations [help], because together we can,” Coin said.
Drawing on her background in the fashion industry — she worked as a correspondent in Italy for French Vogue Homme and Vogue Sport in the Seventies and early Eighties, and is married to Piergiorgio Coin of Italy’s Coin department store chain — she has put her marketing savvy to use for Venetian culture.
AFVF works on a project-by-project basis. The group financed new gold plating on the ceiling of the Hall of the Great Council at the Doge’s Palace, and is now working on a project called Sublime Canova with the Civic Museums Foundation of Venice, the Venice Foundation and the Comité Français pour la Sauvegarde de Venise. The goal is to restore the Correr museum’s extensive collection of works by neoclassical artist Antonio Canova, who spent much of his working life in Venice.
Jean-Christophe Babin, ceo of Bulgari, part of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, observed that many public artworks were originally commissioned by private citizens, and the line between public and private financing for the arts has never been absolute. He views support for restorations as “an act of civic responsibility.”
Rome is “the densest city in the world in terms of works of art,” he said, adding that relative to the number of tourists it attracts, the city’s population — about 4.3 million live in the metropolitan area, according to national statistics bureau Istat — is quite small. “While the citizens of Rome undoubtedly have certain benefits living surrounded by so many works of art, it would be unfair to expect them to single-handedly maintain such a historic city” through their taxes, Babin said.
Bulgari seeks to support landmarks of symbolic value to the company, such as the Spanish Steps, which last year received a 1.5 million euro (roughly $2 million at average exchange) donation from the luxury firm. Bulgari founder Sotirio Bulgari opened his first store in 1884 on Via Sistina, and in 1894 and 1905, added two more on nearby Via Condotti; both streets lead up to the Spanish Steps.
Pietro Beccari, chairman and ceo of Fendi, also part of LVMH, said reactions to the company’s donation of 2.18 million euros (about $3 million) to restore the Trevi Fountain have largely been positive. The restoration is part of the firm’s “Fendi for Fountains” project, which allotted another 320,000 euros (more than $436,000) to the Four Fountains, a group between Via delle Quattro Fontane and Via del Quirinale.
Just this month, work on the Trevi fountain’s facade and famous Ocean statue by Pietro Bracci were completed.
“We are a Roman company, and so for us it was important to send a message of support to the city of Rome,” he said, noting that later this year, the entire restoration project should be finished.
Supporting hometown heritage is a recurring theme among fashion companies: Brunello Cucinelli helped restore a 14th-century castle and surrounding buildings in Solomeo, Umbria, where his company is headquartered, as well as the famous Etruscan Arch of Perugia. Diesel founder Renzo Rosso, a native of the Veneto region, gave 5 million euros ($6.5 million) to Venice’s iconic Rialto Bridge in 2013 through his OTB Srl holding.
Salvatore Ferragamo Group has supported various gems of Florence, from the Renaissance Holy Trinity Bridge in 1996 to the Uffizi Gallery, which received 600,000 euros ($797,000) in 2014 to upgrade the air treatment and security systems of eight rooms that had been closed to the public. Once the project is complete later this year, visitors will be able to see Renaissance paintings from the likes of Domenico Ghirlandaio, Alesso Baldovinetti and Piero di Cosimo.
“We have always felt very close to the beauty of Florence. When we have contributed it has always been with a profound sense of gratitude,” said Ferruccio Ferragamo, the company’s president, noting that the family chooses which projects to support “with the heart.
“I think the technical aspects of restoration should be left in the hands of experts from the public sector, also because if a restoration is done wrong, it can actually damage the works in question. But I think facilitating the contributions of private companies is a good thing,” Ferragamo added.
Another Florentine brand, the Kering-owned Gucci, has also been actively sustaining Italy’s artistic legacy. By earmarking 50 percent of ticket sales to its Gucci Museo to a special fund, last year the firm was able to contribute 340,000 euros (more than $460,300) to the refurbishment of 10 16th-century Medici tapestries commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici, which are on display in Palazzo Vecchio’s Hall of the Two Hundred in Florence.
Gucci is also leading sponsorship for a traveling exhibition organized by the presidency of the Italian Republic with the municipalities of Florence and Milan, and Expo 2015, called “The Prince of Dreams: The Medici’s Joseph Tapestries by Pontormo and Bronzino.” Through the initiative, 20 Renaissance-era tapestries stretching an estimated 263 feet are traveling from Rome to Milan during the city’s Expo, and returning to Florence next January.
Last year in Milan, a 13-month restoration project kicked off for the 150,695-square foot landmark Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, a 19th-century shopping arcade, with more than 3 million euros (about $4.1 million) from gallery tenants Versace and Prada, and a contribution from publishing giant Feltrinelli. Work is expected to wrap up this spring.
“As soon as the work began to renovate the space behind the plaster walls, capitals, friezes and countless other original decorations that survived the bombings of World War II and remained hidden, were discovered,” noted Versace ceo Gian Giacomo Ferraris.
Prada, also a Milanese brand, has been quietly sprucing up Italian treasures for many years. In 2010, the fashion firm kicked off a partnership with the nonprofit Italian National Trust, and subsequently contributed to the restoration of a range of historical works in Bologna, Padua, Bari and Florence, all cities where the brand has boutiques. The fashion firm also gave a new curtain to Turin’s Regio Theater in 2014, and the same year, supported the municipality of Arezzo in Tuscany in its efforts to restore the ancient San Donato in Cremona church.
In 2011, the Fondazione Prada, Prada’s art foundation, worked with the city of Venice and its superintendents on the restoration of its new exhibition space, the 18th-century Ca’ Corner della Regina on the Grand Canal. The foundation is also at work on new Milanese headquarters in a restored distillery on Largo Isarco, designed by Rem Koolhaas’ OMA architecture studio and set to open this spring.