GUARDIAN OF AN IMMENSE HERITAGE. Salvatore Nastasi is Secretary General of the Italian Ministry of Culture. He has been at what used to be called the Ministry for Cultural Property and Activities since 2000, with a brief interruption when he was Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Ministers.
Salvatore Nastasi, what does it mean to you that this Ministry has been your home for 20 years?
I have always wanted to remain connected to a world that I felt immediately close to. I won a selection at the Ministry in 2000 and, apart from the brief interruption mentioned, I have always been here. I say this proudly, because civil servants often change administrations and this happened to me too, but this very strong link with the Ministry of Culture always remained.
You joined the Ministry after you graduated in law and soon theatres became your life. You became President of the Academy of Dramatic Art, Director of the Performing Arts, Commissioner of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and the San Carlo Theatre in Naples, the Arena in Verona and you also joined the Board of Directors of the Petruzzelli Theatre in Bari. Are performing arts what interests you most?
It was a fortunate coincidence resulting from an intuition of Giuliano Urbani, whom I still consider a Maestro. In 2001, Giuliano Urbani became Minister when I was a young official in the Ministry’s Legislative Office. There I was able to collaborate on the major reforms on cultural heritage; for example the Cultural Heritage and Landscape Code of 2004, and the new legislation on performing arts or on cinema. Then, in 2004, Urbani chose me as Director General for Performing Arts. I didn’t expect it at thirty-one years old, and I told him I wasn’t sure I could do it. He replied that the performing arts needed young managers and, with a Master to Pupil speech, he convinced me.
Is each city in Italy a small capital that has its own opera and drama theatre?
Opera was born in Italy, it is where the first public support for performing arts was introduced. One of the first funds that the Italian government allocated was in 1860 for the Teatro Regio in Turin, by Cavour. The very backbone of Italian culture is based on the network of theatres. There are thousands of small theatres in Italy and therefore the live performance sector is of fundamental importance. Over the years we have heard polemics about the cost of Italian theatres, Italian music and Italian art, and those who have stirred up those polemics have always lost, precisely because Italians, by history and tradition, recognise themselves in theatres. Naples, for example, has an atavistic, ancestral relationship with its San Carlo Theatre.
Did you have major restoration work done at the San Carlo Theatre?
Yes. I did it out of love for the city, out of love for the theatre and also out of love for my wife Giulia, because I had only been Commissioner of the San Carlo Theatre for a few months when I met her there. She convinced me that I should not only take care of the operation and support of the theatres, but that I should also take care of their beauty. She was right, and I put a lot of effort into that historical restoration. With the eyes of love I was able to understand it, and it is a love that I have transferred to other theatres as well.
These theatres not only exist, but they are also well maintained, restored and functioning?
Yes. Think of the great restoration of La Scala in the early 2000s or that of the Teatro Regio in Turin, for example, which is now nearing completion. Or the San Carlo in Naples or the Petruzzelli in Bari which has reopened, the Fenice in Venice after the fire, the Teatro Massimo in Palermo. The State has always invested in theatres, not only in their operation, but also in their restoration and construction. Since 2014 you can also use the favourable tax regime of the art-bonus to facilitate donations from potential patrons, as was the case at the Arena in Verona.
“Cultural heritage in Italy is our past, present and future.”
The restored San Carlo opera house in Naples, one of the most famous and prestigious in the world and the oldest opera house in Europe.
Salvatore Nastasi, you have been Head of Cabinet of three ministers of culture, Minister Bondi, Minister Galan and Minister Ornaghi. Now you are Secretary General of the entire Ministry. What is the difference between Head of Cabinet and Secretary General?
The Head of Cabinet is the head of the Minister’s staff offices, therefore his closest officer, who has to translate the Minister’s wishes into deeds, coordinating with the other offices of the Ministry. I did it when I was very young with three completely different ministers and it was a great experience, because you have to fine tune yourself with the minister and try to translate his wishes as best as you can. It is a political job, a filter between the outsider and the minister. The Secretary General, on the other hand, is the head of the administration, i.e. he is the one who coordinates all the directorates general, the superintendencies, the central and peripheral offices of the Ministry. So you are a more administrative and bureaucratic figure.
Publicly have you ever been a supporter of one political party rather than another?
Never. So much so that I have worked with ministers of different political colours over the years and I have often been the butt of jokes. But a civil servant does just that, he tries to serve the nation to the best of his ability.
What is your working day In your current role as Secretary General?
The Ministry of Culture is such a peculiar and multifarious Ministry that the Secretary General may happen to deal with archives in the morning, with cinema at lunchtime, with libraries in the early afternoon, with superintendencies in the evening and maybe, on his way to bed, he must read a report from the Superintendency for Underwater Cultural Heritage in Taranto. It is a Ministry that is very rich and boundless in its competences, and I am the coordinator of all the offices, the ultimate manager, administratively speaking.
What are the qualifications and training of the managerial class in the Ministry of Culture?
Exceptional. Our architects, archaeologists, art historians and even administrative staff are among the best prepared in the public administration and, above all, they are prepared to handle all kinds of emergencies. Think of earthquakes or natural disasters: we are always on the ground and always available, and this is something that few other administrations in the world have. The mentality has slightly changed since I arrived at the Ministry, twenty years ago, when there was still the concept of the superintendent-satrap, absolute ruler. Some reforms have improved this. I remember Adriano La Regina, who was a great superintendent, but if he did not want a subway either it was not done or it was done according to his taste. Now there is less arbitrariness, also due to the reform of the single superintendency (when before there were many; this helps, because the superintendent has to balance the interests of many communities).
How many managers and employees does the Ministry have?
The number of staff is about 18,000, although today we have a shortage of over 3,000, pending selection procedures that are currently in progress. There are about thirty general directors, those in the first rank; just under two hundred in the second rank, of which forty-five are superintendents. Plus there are the directors of state archives, libraries, administrative and so on.
What are you most proud of that you have seen the Ministry do?
Pompeii was perhaps the most important and, globally, perhaps the most striking achievement of several ministers. We have gone from an abandoned archaeological site, subject to continuous collapses, disorganised, with huge labour struggles, to a healthy management, with a completely cleaned and restored park that has doubled its visitors within a few years and is the spearhead of the Italian cultural offer. Much is owed to this minister, Dario Franceschini, but much is also owed to the previous ministers, because the Pompeii project was born in 2011/2012 and has always been improved. It was a union of ideas and actions. Putting together a force like the Carabinieri – starting with Giovanni Nistri – with that of an archaeologist – Massimo Osanna – might have seemed crazy, but instead it is a marriage that still lasts.
Not everyone knows that there is also a Carabinieri directorate.
There is a special Carabinieri nucleus for the protection of cultural heritage in general: it is a specialised corps known throughout the world. Then there is the Carabinieri contingent in Pompeii with a Carabinieri general, also because it is a very difficult area to be managed.
Is it still functioning today?
Yes. As often happens in our country, when something starts to work there is joy and pride, not only on the part of Italian citizens. A few weeks ago I accompanied Prince Paul of Greece to visit the Augustus Studio on the Palatine and he spoke enthusiastically about Pompeii, as one of the most beautiful sites he had ever seen. When a foreign personality makes a comment like that, it means that we really have achieved something important.
Besides Pompeii, what are the other most important things?
The reform of cinema. What Italy has done on cinema I think is unique in the world, in some ways superior even to France. Right now Italy is the country with an extremely favourable tax legislation. We now produce three hundred films a year and there is full employment in the sector at the moment. Large foreign productions want to come to Italy because ours, in addition to the beautiful country, culture, gastronomy and taste, has a tax credit that no other country can offer. The reform of the cinema in recent years is due to Minister Franceschini and a great deal to the hard work of Professor Lorenzo Casini.
Are we going back to the days of the great Cinecittà?
Perhaps we are doing better than we did in the 1950s, both in terms of full employment and number of companies opening in Italy to make films. The President of the Venice Biennale, Roberto Cicutto, told me that in the next Biennale they will have a problem with selecting films, because there will be so many and so good proposals that it would be necessary to organise two Exhibitions to accept them all. Therefore many films will go to other festivals and we are sorry about that, though it is still an Italian product. Look at Rome: it is all a film set, as are other Italian cities.
“From the point of view of culture, Italy is in first place.”
Italy is famous for its cultural heritage: museums, archaeological sites, palaces, churches. What do you think of self-governing museums?
It has been a revolution. They are autonomous, with their own budget, their own Board of Directors, with a director not necessarily chosen from among the Ministry’s officers, but after an international selection, and this made all the difference. Brera, the Uffizi, the Colosseum Archaeological Park, Pompeii, the Archaeological Museum of Naples, to name but a few, have completely changed their vision, their relationship with the public and the community, their relationship with citizens, tourists and foreigners on the basis of complete budgetary autonomy. Today, the director of the Uffizi has his own budget and is free to decide what policy to make as of prices, exhibitions, loans, etc.
The directors are not all Italian?
This was an incredible controversy a few years ago about the appointment of foreign directors of Italian museums. There are Italians around the world who are museum directors and in many countries this question does not even exist. There were absurd protests about bringing foreign directors to Italy, as well as about the Italians who go abroad. We won the case.
In your opinion, are Italians aware of their heritage and how Italy is perceived in the world?
More and more. Until about ten years ago there was awareness, but paradoxically it was more common for a foreigner to come to Italy than for an Italian to travel around the country. That it has now changed a lot, also due to the museum reform and to initiatives that we perhaps do not talk about enough, such as, for example, free Sundays in museums. We did surveys before the pandemic and 50 per cent of the people who visited a museum for free on Sundays had never been before to a state museum. Whole families approached our cultural heritage when we chose to let them in for free.
Are sufficient resources given to the Ministry, by the government, to manage the heritage?
Today I would say yes, since we have moved from a billion of euros budget in 2010 to 4 billion this year. The Fund for Cinema and Audio-visuals, for example, has increased from 400 to 750 million euros in only five years. Resources for protection, performing arts, and cultural institutes have increased in the same way.
Culture is truly what Italy is best known for in the world. Why do Italians believe in it the least?
The perception that foreigners have of us is much higher and much stronger than the perception that Italians themselves have of their own heritage. It is a cultural problem, a generation problem, in the sense that the great reforms we have made, the great successes we have achieved in the last ten years have been very fast compared to the perception. However, I am optimistic. I wouldn’t say that we have to wait for our children to have this better perception, I think it will get better in a few years. The other day an article came out in the Financial Times on how world powers are perceived globally, and from the point of view of culture, Italy is in first place. This is the message we have to convey and, with time, we will succeed.
What would you say about another excellency in Italy, the schools of restoration in Florence and Rome that have worked all over the world?
We are the only ones who always have access even in conflict zones, because our prestige is so high that, whatever happens, the Italians are always the ones who go in, with the Carabinieri and with our central institute of restoration.
Is a huge Italian amount of heritage in storage?
Yes. We are talking about thousands of works that we do not display, but not because we forget about them, on the contrary, they are works that we conserve properly. We have an immense heritage, and dealing with works that are not exhibited is a complex cultural issue, which also concerns the way museums are organised and managed.
Which foreign countries are most interested in Italy’s culture?
With China there is an old relationship. More than partners we are almost rivals, if I think of Unesco sites. Those countries which are most attracted to us in absolute terms, apart from our European partners, are the Arab countries. Saudi Arabia, the Arab Emirates and Qatar are very interested in investing in art and culture in Italy and they see Italy as a model; this has been happening for some time now and they are very important partners. Of course, the geo-political events in these countries are not easy.
Has Italy ever sold anything abroad?
Impossible. Fortunately, our system provides that all cultural property are inalienable. State, regional or municipal, cultural property cannot leave the country permanently.
Salvatore Nastasi, the epitome of the civil servant who tries to serve the nation to the best of his ability.
Italy has an extremely favourable tax legislation for film production.
Pompeii was perhaps the most important and, globally, perhaps the most striking achievement of several ministers.
Photo by Emanuele Antonio Minerva
The international prestige of Italian restorers is very high.
There are excellent schools of restoration in Florence and Rome.
Photo by Emanuele Antonio Minerva
Italian libraries are the preservation of knowledge.
Photo by Emanuele Antonio Minerva
“Our state archives are unique in the world.”
Who owns the great Italian churches which contain absolute masterpieces?
One part belongs to the State and is administered by the Fondo Edifici di Culto (FEC), which depends on the Ministry of the Interior; another part is property of the Church, hence of the Vatican. Since they are on Italian land, the rules of Italian cultural heritage apply, so the superintendence authorises and supervises. The heritage of the FEC is small compared to that of the Vatican, but it is still important.
Who do the paintings by Caravaggio that we find in some Roman churches, for example, belong to?
Some belong to the State, while others belong to the Church.
Is there a correspondent of yours in the Vatican?
Yes, there is the Pontifical Secretariat for Culture where there are correspondents with whom we communicate often, because there is a lot of cooperation. We have a very close cooperation with the Vatican Museums: their works come out of Vatican territory and are also restored by our experts.
What is your relationship with tourism?
Tourism, in its relationship with culture, has had ups and downs. Sometimes it has been in the Ministry of Culture, sometimes not. Right now it is not, because in March 2021 an autonomous ministry was finally created, with its own budget and its own organisation, its own Secretary General and its own managers. When it was in the Ministry of Cultural Heritage, its issues were sometimes swallowed up when they deserved special attention due to their importance. On the other hand, during the pandemic, the cinema sector, the performing arts sector and the tourism sector suffered the most.
Did you lose a lot of ground with the pandemic?
A lot, but we are catching up fast. Of course, we lack Chinese tourists, we lack Russian tourists, but we will recover. The war will also end soon, I hope, and everything will work out.
From an economic point of view, how much does culture bring to the Italian State?
Various studies have been done; the most accurate ones say that every euro invested in culture brings four. I do not want to say that we have spent four billion to get sixteen, but that is not far from reality. Apart from those people working within the Ministry, there is an allied industry of hundreds of thousands of people working for cultural heritage in Italy in general. Politicians are increasingly aware of the importance of this Ministry.
Are Italians understanding this better because of your work with advanced technologies?
A lot has changed in this respect too. There are online bookings, apps, virtual reality… By now, modern systems are the ABC for us and this has greatly improved our relationship with the public, but we still need to do more. We have to be bolder about admissions, about free tickets, about school programmes, about the relationship with young students.
How much does visitors paying for a ticket bring in?
A lot, because museums like the Uffizi or Pompeii bring tens of millions of euros to the Italian State Treasury. But that’s not what I mean. It is not a question of resources. We must increase the number of people interested in cultural heritage; we must succeed in convincing the Italians who do not yet go to the museum. Alongside school and education, we must introduce a series of incentives, a very strong promotion to all students. Everyone must visit Italian museums by a certain age, as was the case with the Grand Tour.
Is it a great Italian responsibility, given that we have such an important heritage, to put culture into the world?
We need to further increase the presence of the public in museums, especially in those segments of the population that do not go to museums much. Even in the smallest museums. Think of the Italian Capital of Culture, the small towns, our boroughs programme. While the curve on large museums increases, but in a stationary manner, the curve on smaller museums grows exponentially. In the PNRR (Italy’s recovery and resilience plan) there is EUR 1 billion on the boroughs, not only to restore but also to enhance the smaller museums.
Are some Italian libraries extraordinary because there are not only books, but also drawings?
They are the preservation of knowledge. Not only libraries, but also our state archives are unique in the world. The other day we were informed by the Director of the National Library in Naples of the discovery of a new manuscript by Giacomo Leopardi. I saw the photo and I was moved by the thought that an unpublished manuscript by Giacomo Leopardi could still be found in a state public library.
Would you advise young people to pursue a career in cultural heritage?
Yes. Cultural heritage in Italy is our past, present and future. People still come here from all over the world to study this subject.
What studies do you need to do?
It depends on what you want to do, whether you want to be a superintendent, an architect, an archaeologist or an art historian. You can also enter libraries as a librarian or state archives as an archivist. The key point is first to acquire expertise in a discipline and then deepen your study and refine your experience with a multidisciplinary approach.
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Portrait of Salvatore Nastasi by Emanuele Antonio Minerva
Images Courtesy of Italian Culture Ministry