Naples, Italy has been considered a UNESCO World Heritage site for 17 years, yet the local and national government have spent years mismanaging funds and neglecting much of its cultural heritage: approximately 200 churches and other historic sites have fallen into disrepair, stripped of their furnishings (including art) and/or left to rot due to lack of funds for conservation. Recent stories about the neglect and degradation of the city’s cultural sites have been spreading across the Internet, first with the report in the Italian newspaper Corriere della Sera and then with the English-translated rehash in The Art Newspaper. Another story in The Guardian, also published in January, discussed the arrests of two additional people in connection with the “‘premeditated, organized and brutal’ sacking” of the 16th c. Girolamini Library. It is estimated that as many as 4,000 historic documents and books have been stolen, though we may never know the full extent, as much of the library’s holdings were never properly catalogued. A petition has been initiated to strip Naples of its UNESCO status, as it is believed that the city is doing nothing to protect its heritage (though it should be noted that it is suspected that the Mafia may have some involvement, as they were behind the 2008 waste management crisis amongst many other crime issues in the area). The pillaging of the Girolamini Library prompted the director of the Vatican Museums to declare that the cultural heritage of Italy at large is vanishing, particularly in smaller institutions which do not have adequate security, and that “the cultural fabric of the country is coming apart.”
It can be easy for one to feel a detached sadness in this crisis, especially if one is separated from it by an ocean (and even more so if one is not generally engrossed by issues of cultural heritage and preservation). Indeed, The Art Newspaper‘s story in particular has a sort of “ruin porn”-air about it, with its beautiful pictures of hollowed out cathedrals and exclamation that one had better book a ticket to Naples now to see it before it completely falls apart. However, the disintegration of the cultural heritage of Naples and Italy at large is a catastrophe, not only to the Italians– to whom I can attest take extraordinary pride in their history, having witnessed it personally during my semester abroad in 2006– but to the world.
Italy’s government, along with that of Greece, is especially fierce about protecting their cultural heritage, not only because of the countless centuries of tangible history, but also due to the centuries of looting they have consequently endured. According to Robert K. Wittman, author the 2010 book Priceless, Italy “maintains a three-hundred-person art and antiquity squad, a highly regarded, aggressive unit… [they fight] art crime using some of the same resources our [American] DEA uses to fight drugs– it deploys helicopters, cybersleuths, and even submarines” (Wittman 18). There are many legal measures in place to aid in protecting a country’s cultural heritage by making the looting and trade of antiquities illegal, including: the Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property in the Event of Armed Conflict, established in 1954; the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property; and the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Imported Cultural Objects. These measures have aided in the recent trend amongst museums to return artifacts that are believed to have been looted from their countries of origin (the most recent example I have seen was published in the The Art Newspaper on 1/30/13 and can be read here); indeed, it can reflect very poorly upon the museum’s reputation if they knowingly have illegally-acquired artifacts in their holdings, as was the case with the Getty’s former curator Marion True. Furthermore, these laws make it quite a chore to get legally acquired art and artifacts out of the country (especially Italy), but in light of the aforementioned issues, that is a good thing: it is estimated that well over $6 billion worth of cultural artifacts are stolen every year (see Wittman). Italy, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, and more recently China have all been some of the strongest proponents in insisting that any artifacts that were possibly acquired under less-than-legal circumstances be returned to their respective countries.
Tragically, Italy is amongst the many countries that have suffered immensely since the downturn of the global economy. This is in part because their own economy is highly dependent on tourism, which is in turn dependent on the availability of disposable income for would-be travelers. The resources necessary for a country to track down or maintain their cultural heritage are often contingent upon the availability of governmental funds, and when a nation (like Italy and Greece) is in dire financial straits, funding for cultural heritage tends to be impacted, as the government must concern itself more with fixing much larger issues such as high unemployment and crushing national debt. Though none of the articles I have read explicitly state that the poor economy is behind increasing neglect and degradation of Italy’s churches and historic structures, it is logical to infer that this is a primary contributing factor.
It would be tactless to say that issues like poverty, unemployment, and national debt are less important than maintaining a nation’s cultural heritage. However, we are all impacted by history every day whether we realize it or not: humanity would not be where it is today without all of the past events that have shaped the world in both big and small ways. In fact, history is being created every second, though we may not think that it is a big deal at the time, and we are all a part of it. Though there are and have been many, MANY histories since the rise of the modern human, all humans are connected with one another as a species. The degradation and loss of Naples’ history is a tragedy for the world and everyone in it.
To the best of my knowledge, there is not a whole lot that one can do at the international level to save all of the cultural histories of the world (though if you happen to be a collector or dealer in art or antiquities, I would implore you to keep an eye on the Art Loss Register and be thorough in your research on each acquisition you make). However, one can definitely make an impact at the local level by visiting museums, historic houses and other sites. Awareness and appreciation are the first steps in ensuring that we keep respect for history alive.