ROME—On the third floor of the Borghese Gallery in central Rome is a one-of-a-kind exhibit space called I Dipositi where the paintings are lined up in rows with scarce attribution. It is here where the artwork that doesn’t meld with what's shown in the main halls is deposited for storage.
It is currently the only place in Italy where stored art is on display. Most Italian museums instead keep their excess art and artifacts in cobwebbed basement cellars, often stacked up against back walls and piled up in dark corners. These often-dank storage areas have lately been called cultural cemeteries both because they are buried underground and because the artwork is often wrapped in white sheets like corpses.
Despite having the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage sites in the entire world, Italy dedicates very little to its culture heritage budget. It spends the second-lowest of any European nation on culture and it is almost without exception the first budget that gets cut when the belt needs to be tightened. Most historical sites, like the Colosseum in Rome and the Leaning Tower of Pisa, survive on admission ticket turnover or donations from philanthropists. They would be in complete ruins if the state had to fund the maintenance and cleaning.
Conservators worry that increased budget cuts will only make the problem worse. The country is littered with abandoned churches, now stripped of their jewels by tomb raiders. There are more than 6,000 true ghost towns in Italy as well, most of which are filled with ancient villas with original frescoes. Many of the homes are caught up in Italy’s endless bureaucracy, either prohibited from sale due to inheritance disputes or subject to liens that make the properties impossible to sell. In most cases, any antique art or precious contents cannot be sold without a certificate of patrimony, essentially freezing the properties in time—and making them easy targets for enterprising thieves.
Federico Limongelli is a 35-year-old photographer who has created a Facebook page called Abandoned Treasures (Tesori Abbandonati) in which he chronicles some of the haunting ruins of Italy's dying culture through his and others’ photos. “These are places that have a certain allure, and telling their stories using photography was also a way to draw attention to their abandonment,” Limongelli told the Guardian recently. “Many people have begun following us and posting on our page their own explorations of Italy’s abandoned treasures. Often it was not a question of buildings or churches; sometimes it was entire ghost towns.”
No one in Italy can even say for sure just how much art, whether masterpiece paintings or priceless ancient artifacts, the country even has. This lack of appreciation of its culture heritage, which is really a natural resource in Italy, has led to shocking neglect and widespread theft.
In the last 12 months, over 8,400 archeological artifacts have been stolen from open-air state-run institutions, according to Italy’s cultural patrimony police force. Many of these have been lifted from sites where a lack of staff and surveillance makes it easy for tourists and collectors to slip mosaic chunks or even larger pieces into their pockets or bags.
But it's what inside the country's museums that is even more troubling. Five years ago, Italy’s cultural ministry launched a project called Sleeping Beauty to compel directors to catalogue all the art in the storage facilities of the country’s thousands of state museums. Private museums do this for purposes of insurance, but there had not been a compulsory requirement for the state museums to keep such records updated. The initial database created lists just 3,900 of the most important works stored in warehouses, but no one can access it out of fear it will lead to widespread art theft. “The database cannot be consulted for security reasons because making such an inventory public would surely trigger a treasure hunt,” says Fabio Pagano, a director with the Italian Culture Ministry. In essence, it is as forgotten as the art listed on it.
Now, the International Council of Museums, or ICOM, is stepping in, demanding the Italian museums make a real searchable database of every piece of art or ancient artifact, no matter how daunting the task may be. “In the coming months, we will try to ask all the directors for a list of the material kept in the deposits,” Tiziana Maffei, the Italian head of ICOM said. “According to estimates made by UNESCO, between 60 and 80 percent of the riches owned by Italy are found in the warehouses—often not in safe condition.”
One of the most shocking examples of the treasures in storage is the 15th century Sforzesco Castle in Milan, which recently showed its underground storage facilities to a handful of journalists. The rooms are in the former dungeon under the ancient fortification ramparts that circle the site. The castle has 3,500 pieces of art on display inside, but Luciana Gerolami, the assistant conservator at the castle, estimates a further 17,000 valuable pieces stored in the basement alongside some 2,500 statutes divided up in five small rooms. The only way to visit the storage area, which is not open to the public, is through a hole in what used to be the castle moat.
Maffei says that, like the Sforzesco Castle, most Italian state museums have twice as much art and artifacts in storage than on display. “It’s a gigantic waste,” she says. “Deposits are not the enemies of culture, they must not be demonized, they are a place where heritage is kept. But it is urgent to exploit this problem if we are ever going to solve it.”