When culture is used to promote tourism, the control of cultural objects becomes central to the state’s income. This economic reality is unpleasant and is often glossed over in the debates that swirl around heritage. The repatriation demands of the last decade have been predicated on arguments highlighting the priceless nature of these contested objects and their centrality to the nations heritage and identity. The recent power struggle between Italy’s federal and the local city government reveals the economic pressures which are the underpinning of the cultural patrimony debates. It is undeniable that objects serve powerful fodder for identity politics and can become indelible symbols for peoples, Michelangelo’s David being a prime example, but the task of assigning ownership to particularly symbolic objects often becomes muddled through history by the vagaries of war, politics and nation building.
Michelangelo’s David was commissioned for the Medici in 1501 and stood in the city’s Piazza Signoria until1973 when it was moved to the newly formed Accademia (a building owned by the Kingdom of Italy which resembles the famed Accademia in Venice, and many of the federally run Italian museums, with the lackluster presentation of its priceless works and bloated entry fees). The Cultural Ministry however claims that only the Colosseum and il Cenacolo make an annual profit and that the rest of the federal sites are in the red, which, considering the number of annual visitors and the price of a ticket, would make an argument of the transfer of these museums to private rather than state control. Matteo Renzi, Florence’s mayor, denied that the bottom line was driving his claims for the historic sculpture but proceeded to admit, “Our battle is for a different way of managing the cultural patrimony of a city that lives off culture.” Renzi is realistic about the commercial possibilities of the city’s rich physical history and has gone so far as to create a new directorate of museums to streamline how the city capitalizes on this resource. This is a step in the right direction, but Italy’s museums will not be financially solvent or culturally relevant until they cut through the red-tape which mires the Italian bureaucracy. Until these museums are at least partly privatized, there will be little to no individual capital investment and therefore no accountability.
This internal squabble may be seen as a commedia all’Italiana as Gabriele Toccafondi, a member of Parliament, feared but it is the rational extension of arguments which has been used for the repatriation of many cultural objects since the 1970 UNESCO Convention. If a nation can reclaim objects from another nation, why can a state or city not reclaim objects from a nation. Most of the nation-states of the modern world are, for that matter, creations of the 19th century while the city’s which they control have been around for millenia.