European culture: Merkel 1, Caravaggio 0

European governments are turning to private investors to fund the repairs and upkeep of cultural sites.
Andreas Solaro

ROME, Italy — The splendid Palazzo Barberini houses one of Rome's great Renaissance collections.

But on a sweltering Sunday afternoon, its masterpieces by Raphael and Caravaggio were off limits to frustrated art lovers.

"Closed for lack of staff," explained a Xeroxed sign taped to the gift shop door.

Questions about why such a major attraction had insufficient staff at the height of the summer tourist season were met with shrugs and silence until an important-looking official in a dark suit emerged to deal with mounting complaints.

"Why? Why? Because La Merkel won't let us stay open," he elaborated with an exasperated smile.

Although German Chancellor Angela Merkel almost certainly didn’t order it, the Barberini's closure is a symptom of how German-mandated austerity budgets are biting into cultural funding across Europe, an easy target for governments struggling to find cash for schools and hospitals.

More from GlobalPost: Britain’s unhappy political marriage grows bitter

Italy has cut official spending on culture by more than a third in recent years. Likewise, the Greek arts budget has fallen 35 percent, and the once powerful culture ministry has been relegated to become an offshoot of the education ministry.

Cuts in Spain could lead to the loss of 60,000 jobs in the culture sector over the next four years, according to a recent study by the Fundacion Ideas, a Madrid think-tank.

Spanish artists have taken to the streets to protest government plans to hike sales taxes on theater, movie and concert tickets, which they fear may deal a death blow to hundreds of venues from cinemas to bullrings.

Actor Javier Bardem, who has played a high-profile role in protests against government cuts, called the tax hike “the final straw.”

“It will cut off access to culture,” he said, “which is one of the few ways for many people to escape from this crisis.”

That would place a “great burden on the present and future of this country,” he added.

In Portugal, government plans to close the foundation that runs the acclaimed Casa das Historias modern art museum in Lisbon's seaside suburb of Cascais provoked a blistering attack from the local mayor.

"It's an act of savagery as grave as those of the Taliban when they blew up the statues of Buddha," Mayor Antonio Capucho, a high-profile former minister from the center-right governing party, told TSF radio last week.

Italians have blamed their budget cuts for a panoply of cultural woes — from denying vital repair work to the crumbling Roman ruins in Pompeii to threatening to close Rome's Zaha Hadid-designed MAXXI contemporary arts center, which opened with much fanfare only in 2010.

With the world's greatest concentration of UN World Heritage sites to oversee, the Italian government is turning to the private sector. Diego Della Valle, the billionaire founder of the fancy footwear company Tod's, is financing a long-delayed $30 million restoration of the Colosseum in Rome after previously stepping up to support Milan's La Scala opera house.

Other business leaders are being sought to finance the upkeep of Venetian palazzos, ancient Greek temples in Sicily and Emperor Hadrien's villa in the hills above Rome.

While some see magnates' interest as a healthy return to Renaissance days, when wealthy benefactors commissioned masterpieces from the likes of Leonardo and Michelangelo, others fret that Italy's heritage will suffer vulgar commercialization.

The draping of monuments such as Venice's Doges' Palace and the Duomo cathedral in Milan with giant billboards advertising banks, soft drinks and fashion houses has provoked protests.

More from GlobalPost: Italy’s ice cream avant-garde

Nevertheless, other countries want to emulate Italy. The Greek government plans to rent historical sites to film companies and advertisers, and the Portuguese authorities are seeking private sponsors for museums and monuments.

Portugal's director of heritage Elisio Summavielle told Lisbon's Publico newspaper that cultural heritage will increasingly become a business. "Business is a dirty word for some people,” he said, “but not for me. We can't be afraid of thinking of heritage as a business."

As official culture is squeezed, some are looking to radical theater in Greece, revolutionary rappers in Spain and Italian art protests for signs the current crisis could be inspiring an exciting new counterculture not unlike Germany's 1920s cabaret scene or the punk movement of 1970s London.

Antonio Manfredi, director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum near Naples, has taken to burning some of the thousand works in his collection as a radical form of artistic protest against funding cuts.

"Destroying [art] with fire means denying its intended function,” Manfredi explains in his "Art War" manifesto, which calls for a cultural revolution against government cuts and the art market’s domination by big business. “It’s almost an act of vandalism that modifies [artworks’] original meaning and turns it into a means of social protest."

The crisis is also affecting pop music. A caustically witty anthem for unemployed youth by the Cape Verde-born hip-hop star AC Boss is dominating airwaves and street fiestas in Portugal this summer instead of the usual romantic fare. “It's Friday, I want to have some fun,” he raps. “But I don't have a cent. Get me a good job, now, now, now."

More from GlobalPost: Who are Pussy Riot?