by Roderick Conway Morris

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Santa Maria del Popolo, Rome
Church of Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome

Italy Freezes Decision over State-owned Churches

By Roderick Conway Morris
VENICE 20 April 1996


With a host of other problems in the forefront, arts issues were hardly expected to get a look during the build-up to Italy's parliamentary elections this weekend.

But that was before it was revealed, in February, that the Italian state seemed on the verge of handing over to local parish administrations more than 100 churches that have been public property since they were confiscated from the Catholic Church in 1866-67 during the reunification of Italy.

While the Conference of Italian Bishops was quick to point out that the churches involved represented less than 1 percent of the total in Italy, it became equally clear that they included many renowned monumental buildings: Santa Maria del Popolo in Rome, with its canvases by Caravaggio, frescoes by Pinturicchio, monuments by Sansovino and a chapel designed by Raphael; Santa Maria in Vallicella, also in Rome, with its paintings by Rubens and frescoes by Cortona and Guercino; the San Marco Convent in Florence, the Santa Chiara and San Domenico Maggiore churches in Naples, and the Monreale Abbey near Palermo.

The issue was brought to public notice by the arts and environment campaigners Italia Nostra, who relaunched a previous petition appealing to the government not to part with the churches. As a result Prime Minister Lamberto Dini effectively froze the matter, postponing the final decision until after the elections.

'We regard this in itself as a considerable victory,' said Gaia Pallottino, secretary-general of Italia Nostra, 'and hope that whoever forms the next government will confirm that these churches should remain in the public domain.'

At present the churches are administered and their running costs entirely paid by the state through a special division of the Ministry of the Interior, the FEC,or Religious Buildings Fund, though they are freely available to the Church for services.

Despite the apocalyptic visions of some in the arts - who pictured young men in clerical collars carting church treasures off to the nearest auction house -movable artworks contained in the churches continue to be subject to the protection of the Cultural Heritage Ministry, whose permission would be required before any work could be removed or sold.

However, a change in the churches' ownership would be significant, both in legal and practical terms. To understand why, a little history is in order.

In 1929, Mussolini signed the Lateran Treaty with the Holy See, recognizing its sovereignty and granting it various privileges.

In 1984, however, a new Concordat, or pact between the ecclesiastical and civil authorities, was signed by the then-prime minister, Bettino Craxi, reaffirming and updating the Lateran Treaty.

The 1984 Concordat 'actually gave far more concessions to the Church than Mussolini's did in 1929,' said Piero Bellini, who teaches the history of canon law at La Sapienza University in Rome. According to the 1984 Concordat, cultural properties belonging to the Church have to be regulated by agreement between the Church and the state. As long as the state still owns these churches, it retains direct and immediate control over them, and has the power to intervene at once if urgent work need to be done to them.

At the moment, relations between the Church and state are good, but if disagreements were to arise, the result could be situations of bureaucratic obstruction and stalemate.

Such impasses are far from unknown in Italy, and Mr. Bellini pointed to the recent case of the basilica at Noto in Sicily. On March 13, most of the dome and roof of the Baroque church collapsed suddenly. Although government funds apparently had been made available to preserve the building, red tape and repeated delays kept the work from being carried out in time to prevent the damage.

Nevertheless, a chief hope of those opposed to the hand-over of the churches is that it will be possible to prove the move illegal and unconstitutional.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024