Sale Of The Century

It's a developer's dream: 20,000 square meters of premium property in the heart of Rome. Simply convert the Colosseum into a colossal shopping mall. (Need parking? Raze the ruinous Roman Forum nearby.) And why stop at the capital? A spectacular theme park and resort could go up on the island of Elba. Hundreds of kilometers of pristine Mediterranean beaches could house retirement communities or tourist havens. Imagine the possibilities...

The Colosseum may never go on the auction block, but a government plan to raise cash has alarmed preservationists. Strapped for euros and fending off critics who say it doesn't adequately care for the country's cultural treasures, the Italian government is considering a novel solution: sell them off.

Of course, officially, it sounds better than that. Ministers speak of "privatization," the policy of transferring state-owned money-losing assets to entrepreneurs who presumably can manage them more efficiently and turn a profit. Properties that can't be sold entirely, the thinking goes, could be leased out to corporations that will handle concessions and maintenance.

Not surprisingly, the very idea has touched off a tempest of protest. The first big drive comes next week, when Italy's leading environmental group, Legambiente, launches its big campaign, "Italy is not for sale," with nationwide marches. The group has cleverly spoofed bills of sale. The Colosseum is advertised as having a "renovated, independent entrance with lots of light." The Greek temples in Sicily tout "sea views and private beaches."

Selling off some high-maintenance property would solve a lot of problems for Italy. The country has more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other, save Spain. But a study released in November accused Italians of blatant neglect. Pollution in city centers like Naples, Rome and Florence tops the list of offenses. "Cementification" threatens to bury Pompeii in new construction. And then there are the famous floods of Venice. Italian governments have long been stingy with funding for cultural preservation--it's no surprise, given the country's ¤16.6 billion deficit and ¤1.33 billion public debt. But meanwhile, Italy owns about ¤2 trillion worth of property, and it doesn't take a Donald Trump to put the two together. Indeed, the driving force for the cash-raising scheme comes from Italy's richest man: tycoon turned Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. In May 2001, he made a campaign promise to renovate Italy's problem areas at a cost of more than ¤126 billion over 10 years--and now the bill is coming due.

The government first hinted at the plan to sell public property for profit this summer, but the president of the republic, Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, was opposed. At his urging, the government nixed any outright sales of major national monuments. Italy also instituted laws forbidding the destruction, movement or sale of lesser monuments to foreign governments. And any sale of larger, more prominent sites will be managed and overseen by the Culture Ministry.

Nobody really expects the Colosseum in Rome or the Uffizi galleries in Florence to be sold. Mostly up for grabs are islands, beaches, small monuments and 3,000 museums that are either a financial black hole for the government or are in desperate need of renovation and restoration. And the most likely scenario for the exploitation of large-scale sites like the Leaning Tower of Pisa or the ruins of Pompeii is the government's offering a license to sell entrance tickets or granting contracts for restaurant and sanitary services. This has unions up in arms, as private firms would likely hire their own workers, putting many contract and part-time government workers out of jobs. In reality, more than 100 state-run museums, libraries and restaurants in Italy are already run by third-party management. The Vatican galleries, which are private, use such a plan. So the vendors charge ¤7 for a Coke and put a price on toilet paper--the sites are kept cleaner and are better maintained.

The big fear is that foreign corporations will come in and take over. Berlusconi, when announcing the plan, tried to calm fears: "The government does not intend to sell artistic sites that constitute the inalienable cultural heritage of this nation," he said. But Giulia Maria Crespi, who heads the Italian Environmentalist Federation, fears the worst. "If a person buys a beach he does it to make a profit," she says. "Soon the place will become a Disneyland full of noise and concrete." No one is laughing at the idea that a huge international conglomerate might come in and run such Italian jewels as the amphitheater in Verona or the ancient towers in Bologna. But if Italy cannot adequately take care of its heritage and these cities and sites fall into further disarray, who owns them won't really matter.