by Roderick Conway Morris

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The Man in Italy's Cultural Hot Seat


By Roderick Conway Morris
ROME 24 October 1992

 

When 66-year-old journalist Alberto Ronchey received a phone call out of the blue this summer from Giuliano Amato, Italy's recently-elected prime minister, asking him if he would like to be a minister, Ronchey was, he told me, "absolutely amazed".

"It was totally unexpected. Apart from anything else, I'd always been critical, very critical, of the government, the parties and the whole party system as it operates here in Italy. I said: minister of what? And Amato said: of Culture."

Since then, after a lifetime of reporting and commenting, Ronchey has himself become news - thanks to a series of fearless and forthright decisions.

I found Ronchey taking stock after the latest and greatest initiative of his first fifteen weeks in office. At the height of the country's worst economic crisis for decades, he had just succeeded in extracting 30 billion lira from the Treasury to create a National Gallery of Art at the Palazzo Barberini, which will at last provide Italy with a state gallery to rival the Louvre and the British Museum.

One of Rome's most magnificent buildings, the Barberini was bought in 1949 to house the gallery. But most of the 17th-century palace was and has remained ever since occupied by the Armed Forces' officers' club that has resolutely refused to budge. By raising the funds to buy another building, the art nouveau Villa Blanc, for the military to move to, Ronchey has finally cut the Gordian knot, making possible the founding of a new world-class museum, which will show one and a half thousand works, most of which have remained perpetually in store for lack of space to exhibit them.

Ronchey, who owes his name to his descent from a Jacobite Scots family that fled to Italy after the defeat of Bonnie Prince Charlie at Culloden in 1746, greeted me in his enormous, sun-lit office at the Collegio Romano. Having started his career writing for an anti-fascist underground newspaper during the war, Ronchey evidently derives quiet amusement from the fact that the desk he now works at was the one at which Mussolini was sitting when he learned of his overthrow in July 1943.

For a time a professor of social economics, after serving as Moscow correspondent for La Stampa, and the author of over a dozen books, Ronchey has an accademic and meticulous air combined, however, with an engaging frankness and lack of pomposity.

Finding a solution to the Palazzo Barberini impasse had clearly come as a relief to him, not least because his firmness has been gaining him the reputation of a cultural Dr No. Last month he forbade the Venice Film Festival the use of St Mark's Square for their awards ceremony on the grounds that TV crews with their ätrucks and heavy equipment had already damaged the ancient stone-work on previous occasions. He followed this up with a veto on the shooting of a TV discussion programme in Palladio's Teatro Olimpico in Vicenza.

But his most contested ruling so far has been to put an end to the annual summer opera season at the Caracalla Baths in Rome.

"It's not our job," said Ronchey, "to judge the quality of the performances - though I'm told the acoustic there is dreadful. But it is our right, and our duty to preserve monuments. The defenders of the opera argue that it's such a long tradition that it shouldn't be broken. But my response is: it's precisely because it's been such a long tradition that they have had the time to do serious damage to the Baths, and can't be allowed to go on doing it."

Not being a career politician, Ronchey manifests a no-nonsense attitude to the TV networks, who seem to regard it as a God-given right to commandeer public spaces to provide themselves with attractive backdrops. His own experiences have been salutary.

"If I agree to be interviewed at home, I always say: Do come, but please don't wreck the place. When they turn up they always want to start moving the lights, putting reflectors up - the least they do is blow the fuses. It happens every time." New concessions, he said, to film in historic locations would only be granted when television showed itself capable of more responsible behaviour.

The new minister is also under no illusions as to the immensity of the task he has taken on.

"No country in the world," he said, "has so many cultural treasures per square kilometre. The richness of the artistic sedimentation is unique: there have been the Etruscans, the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, then medieval civilizations, the Renaissance, the Baroque... We have 50,000 historic houses, 100,000 monumental churches, more than 1,200 kilometres of state archives..."

Yet the Ministry of Culture is given only 1,500 billion lira, or 0.21 per cent of government spending - about a fifth, by Ronchey's reckoning, of the money made available in France. But although he has publicly described Italy's budget for culture as "derisory", he is also a realist.

"I'm not insisting on more money, given the gravity of the economic crisis. I did so in the case of the Palazzo Barberini only because it was so important - such a symbolic case."

To meet the shortfall, Ronchey said, the ministry had been very successful in finding private sponsors - the most spectacular recent example being the pledge by the Banca di Roma to spend 40 billion lira to rescue the crumbling Colisseum.

"The problem is that sponsors tend to go for showy projects to get a return in publicity... which is perfectly right and legitimate. On the other hand, there are many things that need restoring, that may in the end be even more important, which can't attract funds because they are not so flashy. So it's our job to create a positive image for them."

One of the severest and most sustained criticisms of the Culture Ministry has been its failure to complete a comprehensive catalogue of the country's artistic riches. The difficulty, said Ronchey, had lain in the obsessively detailed procedure for compiling the catalogue.

"I've adopted a more rapid method of cataloguing, still scholarly, but much faster. It's now envisaged that four million äentries will be done within a year."

Such a catalogue will undoubtedly be vital in combatting the alarming rise in art thefts, by providing data for pursuing missing works. But what, I asked Ronchey, were his plans to confront the threat of what has been described as the "legalized sacking" of Italy's heritage when, with the European single market, border controls are lifted on 1 January 1993?

The worry, said Ronchey, was not so much over publicly-owned works, which were protected by law in any case, but those privately owned. If the financial crisis continued there was a danger that many works would be sold off and exported.

"The point is to find substitutes for the physical barriers, the old customs barriers... To introduce fiscal legislation to help keep works here; to offer more allowances to do restoration; reductions on inheritance taxes, or have the possibility, as in England, to pay off taxes in the form of art works - this would constitute an effective defence."

The life-expectancy of Italian governments is notoriously short. "I'm the fourteenth Minister of Culture in sixteen years," said Ronchey. "Which means, of course, that there's been no continuity. And, even if some previous ministers have been first-class - they've never had long enough to do anything."

When the time comes Ronchey says he will be more than happy to return to his previous calling - though, with the light of battle gleaming discreetly in his eye, he admitted that "having started something I never like turning back."

One can only hope that should the present government fall, the next one would think twice before dispensing with this most maverick of ministers.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016