Rome, to misquote the Californian novelist John Steinbeck, bites deep. It is a dream place that isn’t quite real when you are there and becomes beckoningly real after you have gone. Now the city is suffering badly, and this bites deep. The consequences of coronavirus have devastated its tourist industry. Countless shops have closed. Tourists have been a rare species, even endangered. Not everyone, of course, is unhappy about this. Italian friends love having the city to themselves and the freedom to enjoy its treasures. Then they have remorse for their sentiments. They know full well that, like Florence and Venice, the city’s economy is on its knees and only government intercession has provided support for those afflicted by the pandemic. No one knows quite how this will play out.
The omens are hardly propitious: tourism and culture take a back seat to Italy’s interminable political squabbles. The need for a tourism strategy intimately linked to maintaining the nation’s peerless cultural assets has never been more compelling. Around 20% or more of Italians work in a sector that is presently non-existent. More than 20% of the country’s income comes from home-grown and international visitors. Most of all, the strategy needs to attract high-end tourists – principally enamoured Americans like Steinbeck – and persuade them to leave the bucket-list places and sprinkle magic dust or dollars far and wide. Greece and even Albania (until recently a pariah neighbour) are all too conscious of the importance of a strategy for this sector. As in confronting climate change, a scheme involving investment in cultural assets has never been more compelling.
Archaeological and artistic sites are fragile and require constant curation. Controlling numbers by using flexible pricing, until the advent of the pandemic, has been anathema to Italian cultural managers. Now, however, the unthinkable may just be possible. If so, the winners will be Italy’s archaeological treasures.
In the aftermath of the pandemic maelstrom, Italy’s cultural sector has never been more in need of advocates who can help the sector deal with globalisation.
As it happens, help is at hand from two well-versed charities and one that is both new and rather special. Venice in Peril and FAI (Fondo Ambiente Italiano) are well-established philanthropic actors in Italy. Venice in Peril was founded in 1971 by the historian of Byzantium and the Normans, Lord Norwich, working with a network of British philanthropists. FAI was the idea of Elena Croce, the daughter of the great Italian philosopher Benedetto Croce. Croce wanted to create an Italian version of the British National Trust and so, thanks to Giulia Maria Crespi, it came to pass. Now nearly 50 years old, FAI has amassed a membership of nearly 200,000 and, significantly, taken possession of about 30 palaces and villas, as well as magnificent gardens and precious landscapes. FAI’s present president is the legendary archaeologist of Rome, Andrea Carandini.
A third charity has joined these two well-connected entities. Based in Rome, LoveItaly is now in its seventh year and its accent is decidedly American and not patrician. It owes everything to the dynamism of a Californian who is every bit as Roman as the Romans as she races around the Eternal City on her Vespa, her long, rampant hair flying in the wind.
Enter Tracy Roberts
Tracy Roberts dreamed up LoveItaly, its name and purposes. Tracy has a quintessential West Coast ease and languor, which should never be mistaken for whimsicality or lack of focus. An avid reader of novels about Ancient Rome, over nearly four decades she has formed a deep bond with the frenzy and challenges of the city. As she tells it, in 2014 the normally strained political situation was particularly gloomy. Yet another election ended in Machiavellian manoeuvres and a foreboding sense for the future. Tracy recalls that she was especially dismayed at the dire fatalism of her fellow Romans about the state of the monuments from the city’s extraordinary past. Structures belonging to the era of Cicero and Caesar were visibly decaying. Even the Mausoleum of Augustus – the emperor who turned the city from clay into marble – was closed, boarded off, and, disgracefully, falling apart in the 2,000th anniversary year of his passing. The pitiful mausoleum was far from unique. Everywhere cultural sites appeared doomed to disintegration. No one was volunteering solutions.
Tracy is charmingly clear-eyed about her Damascene moment. Her ambition to do something was triggered by a chance encounter at a cocktail party that late winter. Luigi Capelli was fresh from Silicon Valley and setting up Rome’s first start-up accelerator. Roman by birth, but a citizen of the world by nature, Luigi explained to Tracy that Italy needed American drive and American dollars to help it appreciate and care for its past assets.
Ever proud of his then risky venture, Luigi invited Tracy to his start-up accelerator the LVenture labs, for a pep talk. Opportunism filled its air. Modelled on US West Coast accelerators, it had just been established in the brightly lit, gargantuan hall occupying the first floor of Termini railway station. Accessed by an elevator off the main concourse streaming with travellers, the immense room above had the unreal feel of a James Bond movie, with 600 young Italians working in sponsored teams to design new Italian business initiatives. The whip-smart zeal was feverish. Their Zen-like self-confidence and certainty was reassuring. Tracy was swept away by the can-do optimism. If it could work for the future, surely, she echoed Luigi, there was the seed for an idea to save Rome and indeed Italy’s past? The effervescent Luigi agreed, and with largesse from his LVenture labs team, LoveItaly was born.
LoveItaly’s goal was to be a bridge-builder, an ambassadorial facilitator of sorts between donors of all kinds and cultural jewels. Owning property like FAI has never been any part of its aspirations. Within a year, the main committee had created a separate committee for Young LoveItaly, and then a committee for the American Friends of LoveItaly. Conservation projects were not hard to find: dozens came raining down. Carrying them out, as with all things Italian, was entirely another thing.
Tracy first came to Rome almost 40 years ago. Like thousands of American students, she was taking a semester abroad in the Eternal City. As she recalls, with a rich smile, she instantly fell in love with its spirit and, despite all its many challenges, on graduating from UCLA, Rome was beckoningly real – she had been bitten. There were to be no second thoughts, no missing the hum and beat of Los Angeles. Being instinctively entrepreneurial, she set up the English Yellow Pages to assist an international community to network in pre-mobile phone days. Her company prospered, she recounts proudly, until the age of apps consigned the Yellow Pages to antiquity. Over these years, Tracy also helped the government to improve its communications. During a heady jet-setting spell in the late 1980s and ’90s she worked for Italy’s minister of foreign affairs, putting the country squarely on the international stage. Both jobs led her to an exceptional circle of Italian and expat friends. It was to these friends she turned to found LoveItaly.
Tracy, like her expat and Italian friends, knew LoveItaly would not be straightforward. Italians are not great philanthropists like Americans. The culture of Italy rests squarely on support from the state. Added to that, the management of Italy’s treasures is mired in tiers of bureaucracy that amazed even Tracy as she lobbied archaeologists, superintendents, government officials, and the great and the good. Still, the omens were not all bad. Thanks to the obdurate determination of the incumbent Minister of Culture to grapple with the paperwork, change after 2014 grudgingly – by baby-steps rather than strides in Californian English – has come to pass.
As all Italians know, everything is highly dependent on the whims of individuals. Some love Americans – and the effervescent Tracy in particular – some, I joke not, reckon they’re all in cahoots with the CIA. For Tracy, it has been a bumpy learning curve, but her genial persistence is eloquently bearing fruit. Now, after seven years, LoveItaly is on the cultural map in Italy and getting there in the USA. Thanks to Tracy’s no-nonsense determination and fathomless reserves of patience, LoveItaly has a portfolio of projects, many supported by crowdfunding and some by donor-partners looking to be helpful but not knowing how to go about it. Each is a special story, a match made by individuals who simply purr with the pleasure of working to better the future of Italy’s treasures.
Here are three completed stories and three that are currently under way. Restlessly curious, Tracy is conjuring up many more as she senses the growing feeling that having American support is a match-winner for success in Italy.
Projects ticked off
Pompeii. Dating back to the 2nd century BC, Cubiculum N.3 of the Domus of the Centaur is one of Vesuvian city’s finest and most important antiquities. This 2,000-year-old bedroom may be small, but its scientific, historical, and artistic value is huge. Its wall decorations are in the Pompeian first style, dating back to the city’s Golden Age, before it was occupied by Rome. Cubiculum N.3 offers a rare glimpse into life in the exclusive District VI of Pompeii during this era. LoveItaly took this project on in 2015 and, thanks to 200 crowdfunding donors, it has been possible to conserve the wall paintings and the room will be opened to visitors. It is a small gem in among the many new projects that mark the great transformation of Pompeii from a shambolic problem to a genuine world-class visitor destination.
Rome: ‘The Race of the Berber Horses’ (1935) by Corrado Cagli. LoveItaly and American Friends of LoveItaly were mandated by the National Academy of Dance and the National Institute of Conservation and Restoration to apply for a grant from the Ruth Stanton Foundation to finance the restoration of the mural painting by Corrado Cagli in the main hall of the National Academy of Dance in Rome.
Again, a bite-size project, but one that showed how LoveItaly could successfully collaborate with an American foundation. The foundation turned to LoveItaly’s affiliate American Friends of LoveItaly (registered in the US with the IRS as a celebrated so-called 501(c)(3) tax-free charity), because it wanted a dependable and accessible locutor in Rome. Corrado Cagli was an Italian who made Rome his home. He made his name as the painter of great murals until Mussolini banned Jews from all state-financed positions. At which point Cagli fled to New York, returning after the war to Rome, where he worked until his death in 1976.
Island of Capri: Adopt a Column. The small cloister of the Certosa on the island of Capri is one of the most important architectural and artistic treasures of Campania. It is part of the Carthusian Charterhouse of San Giacomo, built by the early Renaissance architect Giacomo Arcucci on land donated by the Aragonese Queen Giovanna. The Charterhouse is now in state care. It has three main elements: the pharmacy and women’s church, the buildings for monks, and those for guests. The cloister (Chiostro Grande) is of a late Renaissance design, while the Chiostro Piccolo is made of reused Roman marble columns. This elegant and intimate small cloister dates to the foundation of the Certosa (1371-1374), making it one of the oldest parts of the complex. The LoveItaly crowdfunding campaign raised funds for restoration of the ancient marble columns that support the arches of the small cloister. On paper, it is hardly a sexy project, yet in reality each column forms part of a simply breathtaking whole, in one of the most magical spots in the world. Restoration is currently taking place.
Active crowdfunding projects
LoveItaly has a large portfolio of active projects. Here’s a taster:
The Basilica of St Francis of Assisi. LoveItaly is currently crowdfunding to undertake conservation of a fresco of St Francis in the Lower Basilica of St Francis of Assisi (https://loveitaly.org/product/together-for-st-francis-assisi/). Despite being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the basilica’s frescoes are in a staggeringly parlous condition. LoveItaly has become an active interlocutor to ensure the future of this spiritual masterpiece. Twice Tracy has been to San Francisco to lobby for support from Assisi’s Californian twin-city. Few places in Italy hold such an enduring fascination for Americans as the limpid early Renaissance murals associated with the Florentine master Giotto (1267-1337).
Gallipoli. LoveItaly is raising funds for four wooden statues in the 500-year-old church of St Mary of the Angels in Gallipoli: https://loveitaly.org/product/precious-statues-in-gallipoli/.
Gallipoli is at the base of the heel of Italy, in the sun-blanched region known as the Salento. The late Renaissance church is located in the centre of the town and faces the Ionian Sea and the islands of Campo and Sant’Andrea. Built in 1663, it was dedicated to St Mary of the Angels, whose worship is linked to St Francis of Assisi.
Villa Giulia Project. The National Etruscan Museum at the Villa Giulia in Rome is one of the great treasure houses of European archaeology. Its Etruscan finds are simply extraordinary, but maintaining this collection is as challenging as the museum is mesmerising. Following a collaborative experience with a petroleum company, Q8, Tracy set out to entice other Italian companies to partner with LoveItaly on conservation projects in this museum. The young director, Valentino Nizzo, is the perfect partner. Valentino belongs to the new generation of Italy’s museum directors who are prepared to problem-solve and partner wherever possible, rather than sit on their hands!
To start partnerships coming, Valentino proposed that LoveItaly help finance the restoration of a funerary urn originating from the great Etruscan city of Cerveteri. This bed-shaped receptacle dating back to the second half of the 6th century BC was used to house a cremation. On the lid, it bears a semi-reclining female figure in the act of pouring perfume from an ointment bottle (alabastron). Richly dressed, the ‘lady’ wears a long chiton, the characteristic Etruscan headdress (tutulus), and pointed shoes; disc earrings, a necklace with bulle and bracelets stand out among the jewels that adorn it. In the modelling of the face, as well as in the details of the clothing, there is more than a Grecian hint. Without doubt, this masterpiece would have appealed to that great amateur Etruscologist D H Lawrence, as much as it does to Tracy and Valentino. The challenge is now on to identify a partner or partners – ideally businesses – who will be seduced by this wonder from Italy’s early Iron Age.
A point of inflection
The economic crisis created by the pandemic has shown how much Italy needs its new Rome-based cultural charity. Italy’s countless buildings, paintings, and objects merit ongoing care for social benefit, as well as assets of the knowledge economy. Everywhere funding is more stretched than it ever was. This crisis may also be an opportunity. LoveItaly, as Tracy Roberts likes to say, is at a point of inflection. Greatly helped by the LVenture labs and their acute entrepreneurial eyes on Italy’s future, she has tapped into the pulse of Rome, the civic awareness of the international business community, and the sensibility of Americans.
Thanks to Tracy’s infectious humour, a dash of American resilience, and skilful networking, LoveItaly is now a player in Italy’s cultural scene. Ironically, the coronavirus pandemic and its imposed isolation has made us all appreciate tourism as an industry that is every bit as large as the oil industry and one, in an age sensitive at long last to climate change and cultural uncertainties, that it is far more important to our global way of life. In Tracy Roberts, Italy has an American advocate who makes the urgency of this industry and its treasures beckoningly real.
To become a member or supporter of LoveItaly, visit https://loveitaly.org.
PHOTOS: photos by kind concession of Italy’s Ministry of Culture - Archaeological Park of Pompeii.