February 10, 2006

Italy interior ministry owns earthly paradises

By Philip Pullella

ROME (Reuters) - Whenever Italian Interior Minister Giuseppe Pisanu wants a respite from the rigors of protecting the country's borders and preventing terrorism, he can turn to master artists like Caravaggio or Giotto for solace.

But Pisanu is not just another art lover.

Due to a series of quirks in Italian history, his ministry -- and not the Vatican or the Roman Catholic Church -- actually owns some 700 of Italy's most famous basilicas, cathedrals, churches and monasteries and all the masterpieces inside.

"Although my job is to look after Italy's security I find it just as exciting to be able to promote and protect our immense artistic heritage," said Pisanu, who has begun a campaign to make Italians more aware of the ministry's role.

Priests, monks or nuns living in the buildings look after the souls of the faithful, but a special department of Pisanu's ministry pays attention to more worldly things like the plumbing, the plastering, and the restoration of works of art.

Walk into the church of Santa Croce in Florence or the splendid ceramics-covered cloister of Santa Chiara in Naples and you are actually stepping onto a property owned by the Interior Ministry's "Fund for Places of Worship."

When Italy was unified between 1860 and 1870, the papacy lost a huge swathe of territory known as the Papal States.

They stretched from the Mediterranean near Rome and ran northeast to the Adriatic coast -- a landmass that is now occupied by five of Italy's 20 modern regions.


In the decade after 1860, the papacy's land holdings were reduced from about one-fifth of the mainland Italian peninsula to Vatican City, a patch of earth smaller than some urban parks.

In the highly charged, anti-clerical atmosphere of the late 19th century, the pope declared himself a "prisoner of the Vatican" and refused to recognize the new state.

The liberal government of the newly formed Kingdom of Italy issued a number of laws against what it saw as the "subversion of the ecclesiastical axis."

Religious orders were suppressed and many of their properties confiscated but authorities of the fledgling nation let the properties remain open to the public for worship.

Few Italians knew then -- and perhaps even fewer know now -- that the only thing that changed was the ownership of the portfolio.

And what a mouth-watering property portfolio it is.

One of some 15 properties the Interior Ministry owns in Rome is the Basilica of Santa Maria del Popolo, home of two masterpieces by Caravaggio -- "The Crucifixion of St. Peter" and "The Conversion of St. Paul."

The Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence houses works by Giotto and the Jesuit church of St. Ignatius in Rome has a statue of an angel sculpted by Bernini.

Apart from churches, the fund also owns a number of Italy's breathtakingly beautiful and historically significant abbeys, such as one in Vallombrosa in Tuscany and a huge natural reserve near the border with Austria.

The list goes on and is enough to make any art lover dizzy.


The proceeds to maintain the properties come from various sources, including rent from some 10,000 apartments and other pieces of 'civilian' real estate the fund owns throughout Italy.

Other income includes some 2 million euros ($2.5 million) a year from an income tax scheme under which Italians can contribute about 0.8 percent of their income tax payments to a religion of their choice.

The fund also gets money from the European Union, private sector donations, foundations, and from advertising space on billboards on scaffolding around churches under restoration.

The fund is run for the minister by Francesco La Motta, who rose through the ranks of the police and interior ministry.

"This is perhaps the most satisfying job I have ever had in the civil service," he said. "In a sense, I am still involved in security because I help protect our artistic heritage but this gives me a very broad vision of our country."

Pisanu and his aides have been trying to make the fund's endowment better known to Italians and visitors.

The ministry has organized a day of celebrations that will be held on February 23 in many of the properties.

They will include special masses, concerts, and readings by famous actors. Exhibitions of some of the best art works owned by the fund will also be held in Rome, Florence, Bari in southern Italy and Cagliari in Sardinia.