How Crowdsourcing Can Save Italy's Decaying Treasures

How Crowdsourcing Can Save Italy's Decaying Treasures

By Silvia Marchetti


Because the whole world comes to admire Italy’s magnificent heritage.

By Silvia Marchetti

Marble columns, bright mosaics, esoteric symbols, arches and an exotic Moorish decor — it’s mesmerizing, but it’s all falling to pieces, on the fast track to becoming ruins. This is what the 17th-century Castle of Sammezzano, near Florence, looks like today: an empty, abandoned building that is crumbling from neglect, centuries of exposure to the elements and, above all, a lack of public funds to renovate and maintain it. 

But local resident Francesco Esposito, 31, is out to tell the world that he will save this place, no matter what it takes. He’s on a rescue mission — and he’s pissed. “I’ve been coming here with my dad ever since I was a kid. This castle is spellbinding and unknown to many,” he says. “It’s a gem. That’s why I won’t just sit here and let it rot.” 

Together with a bunch of friends, he took it upon himself to raise money through an online crowdfunding project. The goal: Give the palace a thorough makeover and turn it into a lively museum. Esposito started at a grassroots level by uniting villagers nearby in a pressure group called Save Sammezzano. Then they turned to the web, reaching out to anyone who has an internet connection and is willing to donate at least one euro for such a unique mansion. The first attempt went poorly: The goal was to raise some 44 million euros (no pressure) to purchase the estate at a public auction; Esposito’s team got nowhere near that target. But being stubborn, and even more furious, he gave it a second shot, aiming for a much smaller, more realistic sum. At the end of July he won, raising 6,000 euros from online donors — just enough money to turn his committee into a real association with legal status that could bring the crusade to a higher level and increase pressure on local authorities.

You fix one bit, and the next day another wall disintegrates.

Sofia Secchiaroli, a crowdfunder in Bologna

Crowdfunding has turned into the last chance of survival for many of Italy’s artistic spots and architecture jewels. Given that the protracted recession has dealt a heavy blow to public coffers, the state can’t afford to refurbish chunks of its huge artistic heritage, so citizens step in with their own pocket money. We’re not talking, though, of big names. These are ordinary people who aren’t businessmen, fashion sponsors or billionaire art patrons. It’s the granny next door, the baker, the high school kid who takes your same morning train and doesn’t mind buying one less pack of cigarettes. They have decided to take action against what they deem a “shame.” Pushed by frustration, they’ve rolled up their sleeves and taken to the internet. They just can’t stand seeing their beloved monuments decay before their eyes.

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The inside of Sammezzano Castle.

Source Shutterstock

More and more Italians are “adopting” neglected monuments, and even if small-time donors are not enough to get the job done, their efforts shed light on the rescue operation and draw broader attention, luring big-scale “shark” benefactors, says Matteo Caroli, an economics professor at Rome-based LUISS University. This kind of crowdsourcing is an incredible opportunity, he says, to attract large private firms willing to lend a hand with renovation efforts. “At the same time, it boosts social ties on the territory, making local communities even more tightly knit,” says Caroli.

One historian got the restoration fever after falling into a pit in Umbria and discovering spooky Holy Inquisition underground dungeons.

Similar initiatives have been launched to safeguard the ancient pre-Roman archaeological site of Pietrabbondante, once home to the fiery Samnites tribes, and the Genoese lookout tower on prison isle Gorgona. In Lucignano, townsfolk are so desperate to save their Medici Renaissance fortresses that they even cook and sell sausages and jam pies to tourists to raise additional cash.  So far the greatest success has been the partial restyle of Bologna’s Portico of San Luca, the snakelike four-kilometer-long colonnade walk that’s in constant need of repair. Online donations recently reached 300,000 euros, but it’s still not enough. “This is a never-ending work in progress; you fix one bit, and the next day another wall disintegrates. The hilly terrain is unstable — we’ll always need money,” says Sofia Secchiaroli, a member of the local committee that launched the crowdfunding.

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San Luca arcade, in Bologna.

Source Shutterstock

This kind of trend is playing out elsewhere in Europe, too. The Old Continent has a long history and is therefore packed with historical buildings in need of maintenance, though no other country can boast nearly half of what Italy has in terms of monuments and UNESCO World Heritage sites. In Holland a group of privates are having a hard time raising financial support for the restoration of a 17th-century frescoed building in picturesque Delft, tied to the history of the Pilgrim Fathers and the Mayflower adventure. The paintings inside are apparently of the highest quality so far found in the country. Trouble is, the renovation would have a total cost of 1 million euros.

But money can be relative. “It’s not just a matter of donating one, five, six, 10 or 1,000 euros. It’s the word-of-mouth power that can make the number of donors increase,” says Roberto Nini, a historian who one day fell into a pit in Umbria and discovered spooky Holy Inquisition underground dungeons. He’s been battling for years to raise funds for the maintenance of the prisons, often with the savings of his family and friends.