A Canova sculpture in the Galleria Borghese in Rome. Fifteen years ago Italian museums began to stay open past 2 p.m. (Redux Pictures)

“We are very, very, very old,” said Antonio Paolucci, the director of the Vatican Museums, when asked one recent morning whether Italy, rather than moving around the deck chairs of its cultural policy, as it has done for ages, might someday actually consider real reform.

The question came up after a ruckus ensued when Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s culture minister, Sandro Bondi, floated the idea some days ago of putting much of the management of the country’s 4,000 museums and their cultural heritage into the hands of one person. The person proposed to fill the post was Mario Resca, a businessman who used to run the McDonald’s subsidiary in Italy, a pal, as everybody instantly remarked, of Mr. Berlusconi.

That plan was then drastically amended in light of fierce opposition from the Italian arts establishment, which includes Mr. Paolucci, who made clear he was a friend of Mr. Resca. It was nothing personal, he said. But when Pope Leo X, in 1515, wanted someone to look after collections at the Vatican he picked an artist, Raphael.

Mr. Paolucci gazed out the large, open picture window in his office, which perfectly framed the ancient dome of St. Peter’s.

“É tutto,” he said. (Roughly translated, “That says it all.”)

Triumphant, as if there really were nothing more anyone could add, he fell silent.

This is Italy, after all. Everyone here believes change is necessary. But then sighs, because it’s impossible too. Wholesale change anyway. It’s Raphael or bust.

A half-dozen structural revamps of the culture ministry during the last decade haven’t really done much except to shuffle around the burden of a creaky and defensive bureaucracy. The country is paralyzed by contradictions. Italians say they identify deeply with their cultural patrimony, but they actually don’t visit their museums much. They talk about collective Italian artistic heritage but remain, at heart, profoundly divided by ancient regional differences never quite bridged by unification a century and a half ago, differences that fracture cultural policies.

And so the Berlusconi administration’s proposal for a supermanager was ostensibly to cut through decades of red tape, inject an outsider’s fresh views and, in straitened times, find new ways to earn more revenue from the country’s unparalleled bounty of art and antiquities, especially considering that the ministry’s budget is about to be slashed by more than 30 percent over the next three years.

But opponents, not altogether irrationally, stressed that culture demands expertise, not somebody who sold hamburgers, never mind if Mr. Resca is admired and successful. The ridiculous choice that presented itself between maintaining the status quo or enlisting the guy who ran McDonald’s was somehow typically Italian. In a country where every bid for change is believed to hide some ulterior political motive, detractors suspected the supermanager idea was in fact merely a ploy to ransack national storerooms and grease the path for the prime minister’s rich friends who want to hawk precious Italian art abroad.

To Americanize the system, in other words. And perhaps in part it was. But Italians, whose cultural heritage policies have roots in the 1500s, still maintain a very different philosophy toward their belongings. They declare not just precious Roman artifacts and Caravaggios to be national patrimony but also every single Italian building, artwork and piece of furniture more than 50 years old.

That’s right. Everything over 50 (with art, the artists at least have to be dead) is regulated by patrimony laws requiring Italians to declare what they own if they wish to export it. This means many people prefer to remain secretive about what they have, and if it’s art, it therefore doesn’t circulate. Whatever’s buried in the ground automatically belongs to the state, even if the ground happens to be your backyard.

Beautiful concepts, in principle: collective values, shared heritage, cultural integrity over economy.

In practice, in a country where uncollected taxes are now estimated to top 280 billion euros (about $401 billion) — a reflection, among other things, of Italian doubts about, and lack of identification with, a centralized government — the system relies upon an increasingly aging and perennially underpaid ministry. It is practically unmanageable. It encourages dishonesty and illicit trade; it discourages innovation and outreach. It also stresses conservation — sometimes to a fault.


Michael Kimmelman
New York Times