Europe turns to private hands to preserve its treasures amid financial crisis

The once-majestic 17th-century Palazzo Manfrin, one of this city’s most important architectural sites, is falling apart. Its white neoclassical facade is crumbling, several wooden doors are splintering, and its floor-to-ceiling frescoes have faded from age and water damage.

The dire condition of the building has catapulted it to the top of the local government’s list for restorations. But after multiple rounds of cuts to its budget, there simply isn’t enough money.

So this year, local leaders made a painful decision. They put the palace up for sale.

Two years into Europe’s financial crisis, which has governments slashing spending in a bid to tame runaway debts, the region is facing a cultural calamity for which there is no emergency bailout fund. Historical buildings, churches, monuments, bridges, barracks, archaeological ruins and other sites are disintegrating from neglect. Local governments, desperate to find a way to preserve these sites before it is too late, are making up for budget shortfalls by hanging ads, selling usage rights and, in some cases, putting the structures themselves on the market.
In France, the caretakers of Versailles have agreed to let two hotels open on the palace grounds and have proposed ­licensing the image of the building for use on luxury watches. In Spain, planners eager for more tax revenue approved the construction of an office tower in the historic city center of Seville near the Gothic cathedral where Christopher Columbus is buried, ignoring threats from the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization to disqualify the city as a World Heritage site if the project proceeded. And in Greece, the government voted this year to open sites such as the Parthenon, the Poseidon Temple and Delphi to cinematographers willing to pay per-minute fees.

Interested in buying the Manfrin palace? It could be yours for $20.5 million. How about exclusive rights to use the image of the Colosseum on your products for 15 years? $27.5 million. A giant billboard on the Milan Cathedral? That’ll be $187,000 a month. Companies such as Coca-Cola, Bulgari, Ford and Hyundai have jumped at the opportunities. But in recent months, such deals have come under fire. Citizen groups have staged protests and filed lawsuits to try to stop officials from selling out Italy’s cultural treasures for what they say are cheap, temporary returns.

“We are conscious that the perception of this in the public is not so positive,” said Fausta Bressani, director of cultural affairs for the region of Veneto, which includes Venice. “But our priority is to save the structure.” The restoration of the Colosseum in Rome, where tens of thousands once gathered for epic fights between gladiators, was supposed to start in March. But the work was stopped after a cultural preservation group revealed that what was being portrayed as a generous gift by Diego Della Valle, owner of luxury handbag maker Tod’s, actually came with strings. The agreement made by the city of Rome gives Della Valle exclusive rights to use the image of the Colosseum on his company’s products.

There has been a similar uproar in Venice, where the Benetton Group bought a centuries-old building that once housed the German trade mission to Venice, the Fondaco dei Tedesci, with plans to turn it into a shopping mall and gut parts of the interior to put in an escalator. “Our monuments are being degraded by these exchanges of money between private and public powers. Are we so poor that we have to sell our grandfathers?” said Alessandra Mottola Molfino, national president of Italia Nostra, a cultural heritage group that has campaigned against the Colosseum and Fondaco di Tedesci projects.

Government officials acknowledge that some of the deals they are striking are not ideal. But the officials are in a race against time. Even before the financial crisis, some local governments did not have enough money to properly maintain historic sites. No one wants to have another Pompeii, where in October a portion of the wall surrounding the ancient city — frozen in time since the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in the 1st century — collapsed in front of crowds of tourists after it was weakened by water damage and climbing ivy.
For decades, Venice had prided itself on its postcard-perfect views. But then the euro crisis hit. Tax revenue fell, budgets were slashed, economies slowed, and suddenly the local government in 2010 found itself struggling to manage a rising deficit at the same time that many of its buildings were buckling under stress from rain, seawater, pollution and tourists. Officials began contacting prominent chief executives and other wealthy citizens in Italy. In a country that is a virtual museum, the idea of cultural sponsorships appealed to companies and governments alike, and a compromise was struck to allow billboard-size advertisements on scaffoldings, but only while restoration work was being done. Money raised from the ads would be used to fund the restoration, and any left over would go to the region’s general budget.

Venice today is hardly Times Square, but the proliferation of ads has been jarring to local residents and tourists.

Paolo Giabardo, 47, a Venetian native who restores old sailboats for a living, has mixed feelings about the deals. He called the advertisements “really horrible.” But he said he recognizes that once a historical site is destroyed, you cannot get it back.

UNESCO culture chief Francesco Bandarin, who is from Venice, said that selling ads is “an acceptable measure” to fund conservation efforts at a time of financial difficulty but that certain conditions must be met, such as respecting the dignity of the monuments and informing the public of how the money will be spent.

However, he said, “I do not think that all these principles were fully respected in Venice, where there have been several cases of excess.” In one case, for instance, a mammoth Coca-Cola ad was erected on a historic bridge, obscuring the entire structure.

On a recent weekday, British tourists David and Janice Barlow were aboard a boat on Venice’s Grand Canal, struggling to take a picture of the Piazza San Marco. They kept angling their cameras this way and that, trying to get a shot that did not include the multi-story Pandora jewelry ad on the building that used to house the old mint. They failed.

“It’s a shame we can’t get away from this,” Janice Barlow said.

The man who pioneered such advertisements in Italy is Gian­luca de Marchi, president of a Rome-based venture called Urban Vision. De Marchi’s company has placed ads on 70 historical landmarks since it was founded in 2006.

The city of Rome allows the ads to cover only 20 percent of the scaffolding. In Milan, the limit is 50 percent. Churches have turned down billboards featuring scantily clad female figures.

De Marchi said he is hurt by those who criticize his business. “I am a Roman and love my city and my country,” he said in an interview. “What we are doing is safeguarding history.” The revenue from advertisements, while significant, has not been enough to keep Venice and the surrounding region afloat, so the regional government has started putting more of its buildings on the market. For prospective buyers, there’s a catch, said Bressani, the cultural director. The price tag for the properties does not include the restoration work required under the terms of the sale, and the work often costs as much as the purchase.

If they are all sold at the asking price, the 13 properties that Veneto has for sale this year will bring in nearly $58 million — nearly five times the entire general budget for the region. The Palazzo Manfrin is the most famous. Once owned by a tobacco magnate, the five-story palace represented a new movement in building design, popularized by young, urban Italians at the time who saw it as a political statement against the more ornate decoration of its predecessors. In its heyday, it housed a large collection of artwork by masters such as Raphael and Bellini.

The most recent tenant, a convent of nuns, left 10 years ago when the building was condemned. Bressani said the decision to sell was one of last resort. The region appealed to the national government, the European Commission and other possible sources of funding, but no one was in a position to help. Still, she said she is hopeful an appropriate buyer will turn up. “We are facing a major crisis, and the future is still uncertain,” she said. “But I do not believe it’s impossible to find private sponsors who respect that these buildings are cultural products.”