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.
Italy, home to 47 UNESCO World Heritage sites and 60,000 documented archaeological ruins — more than in any other country — is at the forefront of this trend.
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.