FLORENCE, Italy—From the frescos of Florence and the opera houses of Milan, to the amphitheaters of Rome, Italy’s cultural heritage is ancient, broad, and deep. But despite having the greatest number of world heritage sites of any country, Italy invests very little in its culture—only recession-crippled Greece invests less.
The effects of that under-investment are showing.
Even the largest archaeological site in the country, Pompeii, with its famous snapshot of Roman life preserved in the ashes of a volcanic eruption, is suffering. UNESCO has threatened to remove it from the list of World Heritage Sites because of its wretched appearance and the European Union says it will withdraw subsidies unless it is refurbished.
“Culture is a great economic wealth,” said Roberto Grossi, president of Federculture, the association that supervises the cultural assets of Italy. “It provides 5.4 percent of the GDP and employs 1.4 million people. Above all, it is an essential factor for any society that can be fair, united, free, and open just because it develops knowledge, fosters innovation and social inclusion, and, therefore, produces well-being.”
According to a Federculture report released earlier this month, over the last year state museums have lost about 10 percent of visitors, down from 40 million to 36 million people. Admission to concerts of classical music fell by 22.8 percent. 54 percent of Italians did not read a single book in a year.
At the same time, investment in the sector was cut at a local level by municipalities by 11 percent. Even private sponsorship is falling: in 2012, it dropped by 9.6 percent, but since the start of the financial crisis in 2008, it has dropped by 42 percent.
With 3,609 museums, 5,000 cultural sites, 46,025 architectural heritage sites, 12,609 libraries, 34,000 places of entertainment, and 49 UNESCO sites (two new UNESCO sites, Medici Villas and Mount Etna, were named a few weeks ago), Italy is unique for the richness of its heritage. But it is also one of the most backward countries in Europe in terms of investment in the sector.
Only a month ago, the European Institute of Statistics (Eurostat) relegated Italy to the second lowest rank (followed by Greece) for public spending on culture. The comparative study by Eurostat shows that Italy invests only 1.1 percent of its GDP in culture, compared to an EU average of 2.2 percent. Italy spends only 8.5 percent of public expense on education, compared to 10.9 percent in Europe.
And, finally, the Italian brand is now outside the global top ten.
“The annual ranking of the 2012-2013 Country Brand Index measures the value of a brand-country in the world,” Grossi explained. “We are penalized by the lack of policies [toward] structural reform for the development and employment, for the protection of artistic wealth and the environment. We fell from the 10th to 15th place among the countries where it would be worth living and investing.”
This drop in the global stakes is coupled with a constant drain of workers who go abroad, a phenomenon that continues unabated. A report by the Migrantes Foundation shows that the number of Italian citizens officially registered as foreign residents was 4,341,156—an increase of 3.1 percent from the year before.
Italy has the highest number in Europe of so-called NEETs (Not in Education, Employment, or Training)—a special category of young people who have slipped through the career net.
According to Istat, over 2 million people are in this category across the country. Giorgio Squinzi, president of Confindustria, the Italian industrial association, told newspaper Sole 24 Ore: “We are in a desperate situation. We risk losing a generation or two of young people: 40 percent of them are unemployed, and many have stopped looking for a job.”
Among the solutions offered by the Federculture report is a private approach to cultural heritage.
“This is something completely absent in Italy,” Grossi said. “We hope to see a trend for transforming public institutions into autonomous companies under private law, to guarantee greater financial sustainability and operational efficiency.”
A first step was made in that direction last year by entrepreneur Diego Della Valle, who sponsored a 25-million-euro ($33-million) project to refurbish the Colosseum in Rome.