The controversy aroused by the suggestion to bring the Riace Bronzes to Expo 2015 perfectly recapitulates Italy’s inability to value an unparalleled cultural heritage. I’ll limit myself to considering three profiles, starting form poor planning skills.
The debate concerning the bronzes is legitimate but late. The Expo was assigned in March 2008. Works of art were discussed just 240 days before the opening, a short amount of time to organize special transport, permissions, insurance, communications, marketing, and promotions for the originating territories. The Moma and Guggenheim in New York plan their exhibitions years in advance. (Moreover, the idea was proposed well before Vittorio Sgarbi by Benito Benedini, president of the 24 Ore group, to the Stati Generali della Cultura in 2013. At the time, however, it was considered little more than a provocation).
The second profile involves the prevalent love for argumentation and demagogy with respect to the collaborative spirit oriented towards a common objective. The theory behind the loans—also extended to other works, like the Arcimboldo from Cremona—is a source of conflict between administrations, counties, and regions: a reasonable solution to exhibiting the art cannot be found without risking the integrity of and maximizing the advantages of originating territories; it points to media consensus and the denigration of the opponent. It recalls the logic of the Palio di Siena: impeding the victory of a rival “contrada” is much more important than winning. Parochialism—resplendent in the Palio—greatly saddens the cultural and political debate.
The President of the Council Matteo Renzi’s slightly demagogical position (hopefully not influenced by the upcoming elections in Calabria) also disappoints, according to which “it’s senseless to bring the bronzes to Milan instead of taking the Expo visitors to Reggio”: realistically, how many of the 20 million anticipated participants will fly over the straight? In its first year after reopening, the National Archaeological Museum in Reggio Calabria will sell—according to the best estimates—200,000 tickets. Perhaps in a century it will match the Expo’s bill (after 25 centuries, the bronzes aren’t in a hurry).
In the end, Italy undervalues the potential (also economic) of its artistic and cultural heritage, and therefore there are no investments to capitalize on it. Culture is an oil field we don’t know how to extract (moreover, we don’t want to extract the real petroleum in Basilicata or the Adriatic Ocean…). How much have public and private professionals cultivated and valued the economic potential (other than museum tickets) of the Ebe di Canova in Forli, Arcimboldo’s greengrocer in Cremona, or Guttuso’s Vucciria in Palermo? Possessing a masterpiece is not enough: you need to build infrastructure around it, a tourist area, a history of communication, an image, use digital technologies, and involve the region’s other assets (artistic, natural, gastronomic, musical, artisanal, and entrepreneurial).
You probably can’t make a living off culture alone, but culture can catalyze growth. Numerous examples of success in Italy and elsewhere demonstrate that the professional management and valuation of cultural heritage can nourish many people. The US has understood this for a long time. Plymouth Rock in Massachusetts, where the Mayflower landed in 1636 carrying the first European Pilgrims, is now a living museum, populated by students playing farmers, blacksmiths, and carpenters, thus explaining American history to hundreds of thousands of visitors coming from across the country. Plymouth Rock doesn’t even have a monument, but the local economy enjoys enormous benefits from the village. We are still at the abusive centurions posing in front of the Coliseum. In Louisiana, an ingenious positioning based on Carnival, jazz, and southern cooking has transformed New Orleans—a frankly modest city—into an enormously popular tourist destination even after Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010. This can be done in Italy, too. There is no lack of examples, and they can be replicated everywhere starting from a region’s strong points: Cioccolatò in Turin, Verdi Festival in Parma, and the Violin Museum in Cremona. Provided that three ingredients are used: more planning, less arguing, and greater faith in the economic potential of culture. Otherwise, lets lend the Riace Bronzes to New Orleans, who would pay a rich royalty with the certainty that they’d make it back with interest.
Originally published in Italian on Il Sole 24 Ore on October 14, 2014