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Reminding Italy’s Wealthy What the Magnificent People of the Past did for Culture

What happened in the five centuries that practically witnessed the very idea of cultural philanthropy disappear from the peninsula?

Lorenzo il Magnifico con Michelangelo che gli mostra la testa di un fauno. Lorenzo the Magnificent with Michelangelo showing him the head of a faun. (Palazzo Pitti, Immage Ottavio Vannini/Wikimedia Commons)

The American model could definitely make certain Italian industrialists understand how to preserve Italy’s cultural heritage, which according to UNESCO retains the highest concentration of World Heritage Sites.

I am told that rich Italian industrialists, who serve on the Board of Directors of various foundations, cultural institutions, and museums, do not even donate one euro to them. Instead, they demand during board meetings that their lodging expenses (for luxury hotels, of course) be reimbursed.

Arts patronage originated in Imperial Rome and reached its peak during the Italian Renaissance: the Medici, Este, Gonzaga, and Montefeltro families became synonymous with a ruling class that invested astronomical amounts of money in art and culture. These funds were investments that served both as instruments of political propaganda and as a means to expand their influence and international prestige. What happened in these five centuries that saw the death of cultural philanthropy throughout the Italian peninsula?

With the unification of Italy and the adoption of the French centrist model, culture became the “property” of the state, which oversees (or should oversee) theaters, museums, archeological sites, libraries, etc. But successive Italian governments from 1870 onward would never match the generosity of their transalpine cousins, with the former finding themselves having to manage an artistic and cultural heritage unparalleled in the world. Today, Italy is the country with the highest number of UNESCO-recognized World Heritage Sites. For centuries, the state did not seek the economic support of private donors and businesses in fear of improper interference in the preservation and utilization of these heritage sites. It was only a few decades ago that the state realized it could not manage everything, after which it began soliciting private funds, not in the noble manner of patronage, but rather in the quid-pro-quo-style of commercial sponsorship.

Some time ago, the Italian government raised the maximum that an individual or business can donate to foundations or non-profit cultural institutions. But even the current annual limit of 70 thousand euros is restrictive when considering the needs of our artistic patrimony and the considerable financial resources of many Italian taxpayers.

In the United States, the situation is completely different: the federal government was never expected to manage the cultural and artistic life of the country and has historically depended on the generous donations of private donors captivated by the promise of endless tax breaks. During the 1800s, the great dynasties of American capitalism – the Carnegies, the Mellons, the Fricks, the Morgans – saw in cultural philanthropy a mechanism for giving back to the community a share of what they had accumulated in wealth.

Even today, theaters, universities, and American museums function largely by means of contributions from private donors and foundations. Government grants are basically symbolic, with the proceeds from institutions’ activities (entrance fees, tickets, university tuition, etc.) constituting only a small portion of their annual budget. Obviously, it is not a perfect system: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example, recently modified its admission policy to keep operational its “pay what you can” system for New York State residents while levying a pricey fee of 25 dollars on everyone else in response to concerns about its worrisome annual budget deficit.

Americans continue to demonstrate extraordinary generosity in their support of the cultural and artistic life of their country, contributing billions of dollars each year to diverse causes. This well-known generosity has inspired many Italian and European public and private institutions to establish 501(c)(3) “Friends of” organizations in the United States to support museums, basilicas, universities, and theaters with the goal of channeling a portion of American philanthropic streams into their empty coffers. But I ask myself – and you – whether it would not make more sense for these institutions to educate rich Italians about philanthropy, such as explaining to them that an invitation to serve on a Board of Directors for a non-profit comes with the expectation that they will contribute in a significant manner to the budget, not only with counsel and opinions, but also with a large financial backing.

Disclaimer: I work in an institute created in New York by the generosity of a forward-thinking Italian woman, the Baroness Zerilli-Marimò, and I spend my summers teaching at New York University’s satellite campus in Florence: a lavish 67-acre estate with five villas bequeathed to my university by Sir Harold Acton—and which to this day remains the largest gift ever received by an American university.

Translation by Emmelina De Feo

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