The Battle for Rome’s Treasures

For Italians, the collapse of a 16th-century wall on Rome's Palatine Hill was symbolic. Blaming the 2005 cave-in on budget cuts by the center-right Berlusconi government, many felt that the nation's inability to protect its heritage signaled that the country too was crumbling. That era may be over now, but the practice of exploiting Rome's cultural heritage for political gain is not.

Just this week Rome's mayor, Walter Veltroni, and Italy's vice premier and culture minister Francesco Rutelli gave journalists a sneak preview of the latest in a string of newly unveiled ancient discoveries on the Palatine Hill: four frescoed rooms in the 1st-century B.C. palace belonging to Augustus, who later became Rome's first emperor. The rooms have been restored to perfection and will go on view to the public next March.

Last month Veltroni and Rutelli unveiled another gem on the Palatine Hill: the "Lupercale," the ancient grotto where, legend has it, a she-wolf nursed Rome's founder, Romulus, and his twin brother, Remus. The showing of the Lupercale delighted Italians with the suggestion that the legend might be true. But while the romantics were studying the mythology, the cynics were asking questions about just why the finds were being shown off at that time. The grotto, after all, was discovered last January, during the restoration of Augustus's palace and the iconic collapsed wall. Back then Irene Iacopi, the archeologist in charge of the Palatine Hill, said she discovered the cavern, which is covered with frescoes, niches and seashells, after inserting a 52-foot probe into the ground. So why did it take almost a year for the authorities to make a public announcement about the find?

The answer, it would seem, lies in politics and power. Just days before the showcasing of the Lupercale, Silvio Berlusconi had disclosed his plans to form a new political party that would compete with Rutelli and Veltroni. The news about the grotto, however, effectively eclipsed Berlusconi's news, leading the former prime minister to describe the timing as "suspect."
 
The palace frescoes were shown at an equally fortuitous moment. Hardly a secret—the $17.6 million restoration has been underway for more than two decades—the media preview was held at a time when support for Romano Prodi's ruling center-left coalition had dropped to less than 35 percent in the polls. The announcement also came amid Italian fears that a now-suspended truck drivers' strike against the government would drag on, exacerbating shortages of gasoline and groceries and disrupting the Christmas shopping season. The new showing not only provided some feel-good news for Italians, it allowed the political leaders to show off the center-left government's track record in preserving antiquities. (Since the coalition took office last year, it has more than doubled the budget for the nation's culture ministry.) Veltroni, twice-elected Rome's mayor, is likely to be the center-left's candidate in the next election for prime minister. His popularity is a direct result of the investment of resources in cultural preservation in the city. "The beni culturali [cultural heritage]," says Dr. Federigo Argentieri, a political science professor at John Cabot University, "seems an ideal facade behind which to disguise the poverty of Italy's current politics."
 
Italy's antiquities have always been fair game on the political stage. Italian governments collapse so frequently that it's hard to keep up with who started what project and who deserves to reap the benefits. In 2005, for example, Getty Museum curator Marion True went on trial in Rome for conspiracy and receiving stolen artworks for the Los Angeles institution. The trial, which began during Berlusconi's term and is still ongoing, has directly led to the return of more than 100 artifacts from other American museums that purchased items of questionable provenance, including 40 from the Getty. Many of the returned treasures will be showcased in a new museum exhibit at the Quirinale in Rome—to be opened next week by Veltroni and Rutelli. Eventually, they say, they hope to open a whole museum dedicated to these recovered objects.
 
There is still plenty left to fight over. Only a quarter of the estimated 500 buildings on the Palatine Hill have been excavated. And ongoing work to build Rome's third subway line through the city's historical center has unearthed thousands of ancient artifacts, which will be showcased in the subway stations. The project, which has been embraced by the center-left, began under the previous administration, which was out of power before it had time to capitalize on the buried treasures. But given the rate at which Italian governments fall, it's anyone's guess which politician will claim the credit when the subway finally opens.