28 March 2010

LIFE: Fi Fai Fo Fun

SARONNO, ITALY - FAI, (Fondo per l’Ambiente Italiano) is an Italian organization set up in 1975 to help protect some of Italy’s national artistic and historic heritage. It is a non-profit organization and operates much like American’s National Trust for Historic Preservation and Great Britain’s National Trust Foundation.

Like its sister organizations FAI (pronounced FYE) not only provides much needed financial support for the maintenance and restoration of historical sites and works of art, but it also conducts awareness campaigns to try and raise the level of public sensitivity to the historic and architectural value of Italy's many treasures.

With more than one hundred thousand historic churches, fifty thousand historic centers, three thousand museums that contain more than forty thousand works of art, six thousand libraries and literally thousands of archeological sites, Italy's historic heritage is one of the most important in the world.

But how can you not shake your head in frustration at the pitiful condition of some of the beautiful old buildings here in Italy? Or curse when you find visiting hours severely restricted or no longer valid at the museum you wanted to visit? The question is always the same. Why don’t the Italians do something about this? How can they allow historic properties sit and deteriorate and the treasures in them to collect dust? At the very least, can’t they clean these buildings up?

Unfortunately the answer is that because of budget constraints, only 0.25% of Italy's annual budget is allotted for the maintenance and restoration of the country’s artistic and historic patrimony. That’s why many museums are closed or partly closed, archeological sites are abandoned and important monuments are left to crumble in clouds of smog and public indifference. Italy is overwhelmed. There is just so much, too much, to do.

A few years ago the Italian Prime Minister introduced a bill setting up two private companies to manage the state’s assets and properties. In theory, works of art and historical monuments, including the Colosseum in Rome, can now be sold off to the highest bidder.
When Vittorio Sgarbi, the then under-secretary in the Ministry of Culture, heard about it he put up such a fuss the directors of 50 museums and galleries, including the National Gallery, the Tate, the British Museum, the Louvre, New York's Museum of Modern Art and the Prado, wrote to the Italian government calling on it to put public interest before profit. And while the government has repeatedly denied it does not want to sell Italy's monuments, there is no provision in the Bill to protect national treasures.

In the meantime FAI continues to sponsor special events to raise money for care and preservation of historical venues under its patronage. As part of their annual Spring Open House this year, FAI will open the doors to 590 sites throughout Italy and allow the public to visit historic castles, palazzi, churches, monasteries and private gardens that they would otherwise not have an opportunity to see. 

This year the Palazzo Chigi in Rome, the Bank of Italy in Florence, Palazzo Grimaldi della Meridiana Palazzo in Genoa, the Baptistery of the Cathedral of St. Anthony in Padova, and the Castle of Massino in Piedmont are on the list.

The one I want to see is the Palazzo Grimaldi della Meridiana in Genoa. It’s a splendid 16th century palazzo, right at the end of one of the most beautiful streets in the world, the Via Garibaldi. During the years I lived in Genoa, the Meridiana was just another grime covered palazzo, part of a long list of grime covered Genovese palazzi. And while many Genovese palazzi got face lifts and make-overs for the Colombus Celebration in 1992, the Meridiana wasn’t one of them.

Then a couple of months ago when I was in Genoa for the Rolli Days, I saw that it was being renovated. It was almost completely covered in scaffolding except for the space where the large sundial, the Meridiana, used to be. 

The palazzo was built by Gerolamo Grimaldi, who became a Cardinal in the Catholic Church after his wife died in 1527. The Grimaldi family, originally called Grimaldo, originated in Genoa and dates back to the days of the Crusades. It was, and is, a family of wealth and power and the family tree includes Cardinals, Archbishops, Doges of Genoa, Ambassadors to the King of France, and many princes of Monaco including Prince Rainier III of Monaco, Grace Kelly’s husband.

I read in the Genoa newspaper that one of the works of art they found in the palazzo was a 15th century statue of St. Michael the Archangel that they think came from one the oldest churches in Genoa. I wonder what else they will find. 

Like a lot of palazzi here in Italy the Meridiana isn't a private residence anymore. Instead the space is used for goverment offices. The Grimaldi have another palazzo in Genoa that I suspect is even more sumptuous than the Meridiana. I wonder if that one will ever be opened for a FAI Day. I love going through the old palazzi in Genoa. Forget the Texas wealth of Dynasty and Dallas, remember those programs? The Meridiana, and the other palazzi on the street were built during a period of history the world called the Century of the Genovese. For more information the FAI website is
http://www.giornatafai.it/ (in Italian). You'll find a complete list of this spring's sites.

Photos: (1) Castello Masino, Piedmont, (2) Ceiling Baptistry Cathedral of St. Anthony, Padua, (3) Palazzo Chigi, Rome, (4) The "before" photo of Palazzo Grimaldi della Meridiana, all managed by FAI.

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