Salvatore Settis has been Director of the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (1994-1999) and of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (1999-2010), where he also taught Classical Archaeology and Art History. He has been Visiting Professor in several universities in the U.S., France, Germany, UK, and other EU countries; moreover, he has been Warburg Professor at the University of Hamburg, and delivered the Isaiah Berlin Lectures at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, the Lectures of the Cátedra del Museo del Prado in Madrid. He has also been appointed as Professor of the Borromini chair at the Academy of Architecture in Mendrisio, Switzerland. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome, of the Institut de France, of the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, of the Istituto Veneto, and of the Academies of Sciences in Berlin, Munich, Brussells, and Turin. He currently chairs the Scientific Council of the Musée di Louvre.
Professor Settis, you’ve just published the book “COSTITUZIONE! (Perché attuarla è meglio che cambiarla)” – “The Constitution! (Why it is better to implement it than change it)” – with Einaudi.
This is a book that doesn’t have anything to do with the Renzi government even though it is coming out very close to the constitutional referendum. It has to do with how we are slowly abandoning the Constitution. The fundamental question is: are we implementing the Constitution or not? For example, the right to work is mentioned in Article 4 of the Constitution. Citizens have the right to work. And what are we doing today to put this article into practice? In the meantime, we are reforming other articles. Then there’s Article 32, the right to health. Healthcare has been regionalized, and there are regions where things work, like in Tuscany, or where things don’t work well at all, like in Calabria. What worries me is that there’s this desire to change the Constitution without a real plan. There’s no sense that we want to focus on fundamental rights. I ask myself why 38% of young people can’t find work today. We spend money to educate young people, and once they are educated we offer them to other countries, such as the United States, Norway, Switzerland or the United Kingdom.
What about cultural heritage?
My concern about Minister Franceschini’s reform, which started with very good ideas like nominating foreign directors to lead major Italian museums, is about an excessive bureaucratization of the Ministry, unlike anything we’ve seen before. For example, the superintendents, who have their specific skill set, have been put under the auspices of civil servants who certainly aren’t experts in art and archaeology. This is leading to a series of worrying breakdowns in the system. While it is true that Minister Franceschini was able to hire on five hundred new functionaries, they won’t take office for two years, and, in the meantime, one thousand will retire. It seems to me that protecting our cultural heritage is a primogeniture that we are losing. The abolition of the archaeological superintendency, for example, is something new, but I don’t know if it is right. As I said, the positives include the hiring of foreign directors in museums and the hiring of five hundred new functionaries.
In your opinion, what are the top priorities when it comes to cultural heritage in Italy?
Regaining technical and scientific independence and considering the superintendencies and museums as local research institutions. Today we separate preservation and promotion, yet these things need to be linked via knowledge that is dynamic and is manifested in research. This is not part of the mentality of the Ministry’s bureaucrats.
Where are we with Pompeii?
Thanks to a special project for Pompeii, which began with the previous minister, Massimo Bray, there is an excellent superintendency and things are going very well. There’s also a first-rate German director, Eike Schmidt, at the Uffizi. And an Italian director has been nominated in Venice, Paola Marini, who is outstanding. But the problem is that there is not enough staff in the museums. In the last twenty years, encouraging young people to get a degree in art history and archaeology was like condemning them to unemployment. However, our archaeologists and art historians are very much in demand abroad.
What ideas do you have about how to manage the extraordinary cultural heritage of Italy in today’s world?
My plan would be to allocate more resources, like an investment.
Where would these resources come from?
Italy is third in the world for tax evasion. Confcommercio estimates that we lose 154 billion euros in unpaid taxes per year. What is lacking is a policy against tax evasion. They are much more strict in the United States, for example. Our credibility when it comes to this is very low in Europe. The problem doesn’t just impact cultural heritage. The same goes for schools, research, healthcare and universities.
A while ago, you wrote the book “Se Venezia Muore” (“If Venice Dies”), which was published by Einaudi. It is a very interesting book that starts by discussing Venice and then moves on to historic cities in general.
Historic city centres are ever more expensive, reserved for those with money. Young people can’t live in them. Venice is losing one thousand inhabitants per year. From the nineteen-sixties up to today it has lost one hundred thousand inhabitants.
Is it time to ask ourselves what can be done for historic city centres?
They made a law in Switzerland that says that no more than 20% of houses in a city can be second homes. This housing policy would be very good for many cities, like Rome, Naples, Bergamo, etc. Venice is obviously a very famous example. Another very important point is the equilibrium between nature and the city. In Venice’s case, it’s the equilibrium between the city and the laguna. Today the laguna is not well maintained and has been abandoned, yet during the “Republic of Venice” period it was very well maintained. I think there are three profound transformation processes when it comes to how cities are shaped. In the first scenario, the city is horizontal and spread thin like marmalade. Just look at the hinterland of Rome or Milan. Renzo Piano is the first to say that we need to clean up these cities. We end up having enormous urban sprawl like, for example, Mexico City or some cities in China. The second scenario involves the verticalization of cities, which I call the “skyscraper rhetoric”. Skyscrapers are supposed to represent modernity, but in certain parts of the world they are built and stay empty for perhaps twenty years. There’s a rhetoric related to skyscrapers. The third scenario has to do with dividing up cities into quarters based on the census. The wealthy, for example, even defend themselves with armed guards, especially in the United States. Then there’s the folly of how the very poor live. I’m thinking, for example, of the favelas in Brazil or the shantytowns around Rome. This view goes against a value that we seem to believe in less and less, and that is called democracy. The skyscraper trend indicated another era, but it’s been brought back in China, and in other countries like the United Arab Emirates, and now it is coming back into fashion in New York.
Would it be possible to build something amazing in a country like Italy today?
I believe so, and I believe that you also have to have the ability to respect the past. A positive example of this is the Swiss-Italian architect Mario Botta who built the Mart museum in Rovereto in a neighbourhood full of houses from the eighteenth century. It is important to find a balance between the architect and the client.
Who are your role models?
Naturally, I admire the architect Borromini who, like Botta, was also from Ticino, and I admire contemporary architecture. Although many build thinking about the visual impact that the building will have in glossy architecture magazines. Too often, architects don’t think about human beings and making sure they live well, and they mainly look at an abstract “aestheticization”. I think this is a true affliction of our time. If one looks to Vitruvius, for example, he said that the first thing an architect should think about is configuring buildings for living well. In other words, today only form matters and not function. This is a common affliction.
Where are we in terms of art?
Contemporary art has always been a problem. It was a problem to understand Rubens and Caravaggio in their day, and there are still interesting artists today that have things to say. For example, the 500-metre-long frieze by William Kentridge in Rome that reconstructs the history of Rome from Romulus and Remus, all the way to the death of Aldo Moro. Kentridge comes from South Africa, but talks about the history of Rome. This is all represented with about sixty figures that go from the Ponte Sisto to the Ponte Mazzini. This is an incredibly interesting frieze that tells us about the history of Rome and Italy, from Pasolini’s cadaver on the beach to Aldo Moro’s cadaver. Kentridge references Bernini, Masaccio, and Michelangelo… It’s a very important work of art that speaks about us and isn’t about the market and which you don’t need to buy a ticket to see.
To summarize, would you say that what is happening in Italian culture is in line with what is happening in other countries?
In this moment, it is merely trudging along due to a lack of resources and a lack of a real vision. The important thing to point out is that Italy is producing good young people to then give them to foreign countries. It’s a one-to-ten relationship. For every ten Italians that go abroad, one foreigner comes to work in Italy.
People come to Italy to study art history, don’t they?
Art history is still the area that brings the greatest number of foreign students. There are excellent universities for art history like, for example, Naples, but there is no money to buy books. Those who study art history in Florence often have to go to the Istituto Tedesco. In Rome the best library for studying archaeology is the German Institute. The United States, France, and Germany allocate more money for culture. In Italy, there’s a great deal of ignorance among politicians who don’t understand that investing in culture is also productive. But we don’t seem to be ashamed of this.
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