The Catania Charter is a monstrous regulatory hybrid: rejecting it is a constructive no

The Culture Commission of the Sicilian Regional Assembly has rejected the Catania Charter: a monstrous regulatory hybrid that threatens to roll back protection in Sicily. The rejection was a constructive no, however: here's why.

Reducing to “oppositional political logic” the resounding rejection in the Culture Commission of the Sicilian Regional Assembly of the “Catania Charter,” by which the Musumeci government wants to grant the cultural assets of its repositories for use by private individuals for a fee, to display them even in hotels and restaurants, theCouncillor for Cultural Heritage Alberto Samonà (League) seems to forget that it was precisely specialists and operators in the field who expressed their opposition to this new legislation, before the politicians. In these columns first, then in the three parliamentary hearings that preceded the resolution calling for the withdrawal of the two decrees linked to the Charter.

Rejected, therefore, first of all by giants of the world of culture such as Salvatore Settis, President of the Scientific Council of the Louvre, Academician of the Lincei; distinguished scholars and university professors of international renown as well, such as Clemente Marconi (New York University; University of Milan), who is well acquainted with the reality of Sicilian repositories, as well as Aurelio Burgio, president of the degree course in Cultural Heritage at the University of Palermo, or Ignazio Buttitta, full professor at the same University; jurists such as Sergio Foà, Professor of Administrative Law at the University of Turin; CNR-Ispc (Institute of Cultural Heritage Sciences) researchers such as Massimo Cultraro; intellectuals such as Sergio Troisi; all the Associations in defense of cultural heritage of national importance, from Legambiente to Italia Nostra, from Cia, Italian Confederation of Archaeologists to Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli, from Assotecnici to Icom, to younger Do you recognize me? I am a cultural heritage professional.

No notable names, however, to defend the charter, except for all nine Sicilian superintendents. “It is surprising that they identify the solution with outsourcing for use, rather than planning what should represent a duty,” observe the Italia Nostra, Memoria e Futuro and Bianchi Bandinelli Associations in the dossier sent to the Ars. But did anyone really expect otherwise? Giuliano Volpe, when he was president of the Consiglio Superiore dei Beni Culturali, just a few years ago, wrote of the “failure of the Sicily model”; of the “proximity of the superintendencies to an intrusive political power, which has conditioned the autonomy of the technical-scientific structures”; of the “degeneration” of that model; of “a highly clientelistic management, with hundreds of managers recruited or promoted not on the basis of technical-scientific competence.”

And even the favorable Antonio Tarasco, executive of the Ministry of Culture (formerly MiBACT), who spoke at the hearing, however, in his capacity as president of Sic, Society for Cultural Engineering, ends up awarding points to the opposite front. If he hopes, in fact, that “the program can be successfully implemented in Sicily” “can serve as a forerunner for a new paradigm of the management of public cultural assets, to the benefit of the entire Italian System,” and he dwelt on strictly economic aspects, such as the determination of the concession fee on the level of the convenient profitability of cultural heritage, he also had one undoubted merit: That of having clarified definitively the uneconomicity, from the private party’s point of view, of the commitments that are required of it in return for the loan. Most importantly, that “there is no need to write more regulations. It is enough just to apply those, abundant ones, that are there.” What use, then, are these Sicilian decrees?

Beyond the nuances and individual accents placed on the various critical issues, all the professional associations committed to the protection of art historians, archaeologists, conservators, cataloguers and all the professionalism of those working in the sector, whether they are employed in public agencies or freelance: these decrees are a devolution in the system of public management of cultural heritage and a hymn to the employment of highly qualified labor at zero cost.

It is not clear, therefore, to whom Samonà is referring when, in an interview with La Sicilia (Feb. 12, 2021) he claims that “the main archaeological associations (as if the goods in the repositories were only the archaeological ones, by the way, ed.) have expressed support for the content of the decrees” and that “in general the appreciation has been substantial.”

That he was thinking of Ana, National Association of Archaeologists? It went from the statement that President Alessandro Garrisi had made to us, in which he told us "the deterioration from one decree to the other is evident, as evident as the conflict between the two devices,“ to what he then stated following the hearing in the Commission: ”in recent months Ana has presented a series of constructive criticisms and reflections on the Catania Charter, many of which have been correctly implemented in the guidelines“ (the second of the two decrees, ed.). Which ones he refers to we have not been able to find out: he certainly had not told us about this ”transposition“ in those statements, which also concerned the ”guidelines.“ Garrisi is keen, however, to reiterate Ana’s position, that of a dialogue that can limit the ”damage“: ”we do not like the involvement of volunteers in the project,“ and ”the continuation of the public discussion seems to me to have given substance to that alarm.“ And again, ”the nodes we have highlighted (potential abuse of volunteers, role of professionals) lead us to believe that at the moment the sustainability of the project is to be verified.“ He moves on, then to the concrete example provided by the charter: ”cataloguing must be done by a person who has the requirements of the law. If then ’in aid’ of the worker there is someone else who assists him, but does not do his work, then volunteering is brought back to both a position of sustainability (it does not take away anyone’s work) and a useful role for society."

Deposito del Museo Archeologico Regionale Paolo Orsi di Siracusa
Repository of the Paolo Orsi Regional Archaeological Museum in Syracuse

Cataloging is not an “innocent activity”

But this is where we come to the crux of the matter, and it does not only concern volunteers: with a notoriously understaffed plant, superintendency officials should not only attend to their own of work, but also “assist” the trainees. This is what already happens in the university educational experience, where those who complete internships in repositories are “assisted” by the expert eye of their lecturer as well as the civil servant. Different is the case, on the other hand, of the systematic and large-scale action envisaged by the Charter (which was certainly not written to train students, it is best to remember), for which the scarce human resources in the hands of the superintendencies could not guarantee that oversight at all. Without saying, Burgio notes, that “the university system provides a limited number of internship hours, so it is likely that it will really be necessary to resort to other actors, who must have valid and certified scientific requirements.” For which it is also unrealistic to think, as the Charter does, of the cataloguers of the in-house company Sas, Servizi Ausiliari Sicilia, who are decidedly insufficient in number and among whom “very few are now archaeologists and art historians” (Cia). Moreover, “their competence should be verified,” Burgio further notes. Under these conditions, on the opposite side of Ana, Cia is convinced that in the end “the work of inventorization would be entrusted exclusively to university students on training internships.”

Cut short Andrea Camilli, president of Assotecnici, which brings together all categories and not just that of archaeologists: “trainees do not have the ownership to carry out these activities themselves,” and, against such shortcuts, “great absent is the professionalism of the cataloguer.” Cataloging is not an “innocent” activity, to quote Marconi: “often requiring a conspicuous interpretive effort, which demands scientific coordination at the highest levels, on the side of museums as well as universities.” Also for Camilli, “carefully assessing the state of conservation of an asset serves to impose on the private party a series of appropriate measures.” In short, “an unnecessary measure, a duplication of state laws, but one that deprives the asset of the guarantees assured by state legislation,” he closes. And sharply he also observes the lack of awareness of those who gave birth to this “project”:"what does it have to do with the example of hotels in Taormina that display materials from excavations carried out in situ? These are, precisely, non-decontextualized goods! So they are not the subject of this legislation.“ Recall, in fact, that subject to concession are only those goods on ”a ’B’ list for which one can proceed with greater ’freedom’" (the criticism is by Rita Paris, president of the Bianchi Bandinelli Association): those acquired by confiscation; donated or handed over spontaneously; older acquisitions whose documentation has been lost; and those, precisely, deprived of any reference to their context of belonging.

L'Antiquarium di Himera. Ph. Credit Davide Mauro
The Antiquarium of Himera. Ph. Credit Davide Mauro

A “gentle revolution” imposed in an authoritarian way: the contradictions of the Samonà decrees

Between the statements we have already collected in previous articles and the new interventions, the list of contradictions and shortcomings becomes truly impressive. But it is enough to explain why the resolution approved in the Commission, by M5S, Pd and Cento Passi, commits the councillor to withdraw the decrees altogether, rather than try his hand, as he also proposed, at patching a dress that has already come out of the tailoring shop torn. It is precisely the conception of repositories that presides over them, and more generally of heritage, and its purposes that requires a radical rethinking than the deterrent one delivered to this new legislation. Just as there is little to fix if it is the backbone that does not hold up: the form of management of the public valuation service, which needs to be revised .

Yet that is what Samona intends to do, not backing down one step from the rejection he suffered. By passing straight on the pronouncement of a parliamentary committee, that is, a college of parliamentarians that plays a role in monitoring the government’s activities, examining a given matter attributed to its competence with the help of convened specialists. And the Assessor does this by trying to embellish a monstrous regulatory hybrid contrary to the spirit of the Code of Cultural Heritage, namely a concession in use that transfers the goods in the repositories of museums and other cultural places elsewhere, reabsorbing the institution of lending for exhibitions for the sole purpose of extending the onerous character of the concession to this as well .

Contrary not only to the Code, but also to the same regional legislation that identifies the “social use of cultural and environmental assets in the territory of the Sicilian Region” (R.L. 80/1977) among its purposes, along with protection and valorization, thereby emphasizing that social value is superordinate to any other value, including economic value.

So much for a “gentle revolution”: the approval of the resolution was arrived at after a tug-of-war of more than two hours and no less than three “intensely” (and not only numerically) attended hearings, which to some extent made up for the absence upstream of high-value comparisons between specialists. If these instruments were intended to be pompously given the name of “charter,” it is superfluous to recall, in fact, that the historic “restoration charters,” which incorporate principles and prescriptions designed to guide interventions, are the result of complex and gradual elaborations that have matured as a result of comparisons from the international scientific world.

A distorted taxonomy. Giant in the Commission was Salvatore Settis, who, in addition to what he had already told us, in addition to going into the merits of the individual articles of the decrees, made it clear that it is also only in the terminology employed that this "operational direction is diametrically opposed to the good practices in place in the most advanced museum practice throughout the world and in Italy.“ With the expression, then, ”goods deprived of any reference to their context of provenance,“ a classificatory stigma is imprinted on such goods that goes to weigh like ”a tombstone on any present and future possibility of identifying the contexts of provenance through more accurate documentary or archival research." Clement Marconi had also told us that, in addition to "the danger of declassifying goods removed from the underground trade,“ ”it should be above all those goods whose context of origin has apparently been lost, and whose actual potential for research and value is unclear, that should be jealously guarded in repositories“ to allow for ”the identification of provenance through archival research and input from specialists.“ ”Unacceptable,“ for Cultraro, ”this segmentation by degrees of the cultural heritage into different categories to which a presumed scale of value and economic estimate is assigned based on the absence and/or presence of the context of discovery.“ And still on the lexical level, he calls ”unfortunate“ the expression of 0’”old acquisitions’, which contrasts sharply with the long and stratified process of formation of Sicily’s main regional museums, e.g. the Salinas Archaeological Museum in Palermo and the Paolo Orsi Museum in Syracuse.“ In addition to the case of the fragments of Selinuntine metopes found by Marconi, Cultraro recalls his own experience: the identification, at the Syracuse Museum, of ”an unpublished collection of Aegean-Mycenaean ceramics, to date the second largest national collection after that of Florence, which was presented to me without any indication of the times and places of acquisition.“ What, instead, would happen today under the Samona decrees? That ”this extraordinary collection, consisting of more than 300 artifacts, would have sadly ended up among the corpora of objects transferable to private entities."

The activity of study and therefore promotion of knowledge, the purpose of Art. 6 of the Code, is the great absentee of the Charter, as Buttitta, and Cultraro and Rita Paris, president of the Bianchi Bandinelli Association, also pointed out in particular, for whom the term “in storage” “refers to a forgotten, obsolete heritage.”

Cataloguing outside the perimeter defined by Article 9-bis of the Code. In addition to what has already been said above, although “valorization” in this “deviated” meaning and one that evokes an outdated, static idea (“goods in storage”) of museums and its repositories, is the stated purpose of the two assessor’s decrees, in reality these go to affect an activity that falls under protection, that of cataloguing assets. And it is expected that this activity (but also the formation of “lists” of assets and “homogeneous lots”) will be able to be provided for by institutes with a staff affected by a serious hemorrhage of technical and scientific personnel. But is it credible that those who wrote these decrees ignored the “progressive and unceasing decrease in the number of competent Managers and Officials, due to supervening age limits; in the face of a hiring freeze that has persisted for about 20 years,” as denounced by Burgio and many other critical voices at the hearing?

Human resources, numerically inadequate, overburdened by the tasks required by the decrees. A situation that fuels doubt about the ability to carry out the surveillance activities required by the decrees. For example, the verification of the microclimatic conditions of the places where the works given in concession will be exhibited. In this regard, at the hearing Settis asked whether “it would not be in every respect more functional if the scientific staff of the Superintendencies, instead of moving from one concessionaire to another, could devote their time and their intellectual and physical energies to rearranging the deposits and studying in situ (in the museums themselves) the works that are preserved there.” For Cia, the “Catania Charter aggravates the dramatic crisis in which the regional system of cultural heritage protection finds itself today.” The reference is to the technical role, which in fact no longer exists.

Zero-cost operation. No financial coverage has been provided to these decrees. Cia points out that “in recent decades there has been a constant decrease in the resources allocated by the Region for cultural heritage: from 500 million in 2009 to only 10 in recent years.” In the case of the charter, the region solves the funding shortfall by transferring all charges to the private concessionaire. One thing is clear, between interns and unpaid volunteers, no jobs are created at all contrary to what is being bandied about: “this operation will not go to create quality work,” observes Leonardo Bison, of Mi Riconosci, nor is it the answer to which Burgio invites in order to “give a future to the many young people forced to ’flee,’ or to direct themselves to other work activities after having spent years of study in the field of Cultural Heritage.” The obligation on the part of the private party to provide itself with a conservator is shrouded in vagueness that says nothing about hiring procedures or the duration of the appointment.

Estimate of assets and danger of corruption. Although there is no mention of it in the two decrees, Article 108 of the Code establishes how to determine concession fees, make fees, and to set minimum amounts it refers to “a measure of the granting Administration” (paragraph 6). In our case the Sicilian Region, although Samonà in “la Sicilia” claims that it would be “the ministry to determine the fee due” (ignoring, perhaps, that some autonomous Sicilian archaeological parks have made their own fee schedule). It is the same Tarasco, in the past, pointed out that the determination of fees is also important in terms of corruption prevention: “low or zero fees could hide illicit agreements between the granting administration and third-party concessionaires.”

Archaeometric analyses to private parties. The Charter would like to entrust them to private parties instead of specialized research centers. Cultraro recalled that “the Region of Sicily has entered into a Framework Agreement with the National Research Council (Regional Law No. 1 of Feb. 17, 1987 and subsequent CNR Resolution No. 25/11 of Feb. 9, 2011), aimed at implementing programs of education, research and technology transfer for the benefit of the social and economic needs of the Region. Since the Institute of Cultural Heritage Sciences (ISPC), of which I am a member, is present in the Sicilian territory, and since it is a research unit that for years has been fielding projects aimed at the enhancement of Sicilian heritage through the most advanced multimedia technologies (see the reconstructions of the Roman Amphitheater of Catania or the Theater of Taormina), investigations on the material composition and diagnostics of artifacts should be entrusted to specialized research centers.”

Centralization of procedures under one Rup. The decrees envisage putting all the procedures by which the Region intends to grant to private individuals the use of certain assets in its warehouses under a Single Procedure Manager. A centralization that cuts off what is left of the internal technicians of museums and superintendencies, as noted by Paris. The ultimate dismantling of the “technical role of cultural heritage,” per Cia.

Legal deficiencies and contradictions. Imprecisions, internal normative references to decrees that do not correspond can open to “drifts from the Code, induced by an improper application of the legal institutes of reference,” as explained by Foà. Main contradiction, the form of redevelopment management chosen is the concession in use (Art. 106), but, the jurist noted, “the discipline dedicated to the concession is instead that of the redevelopment service (Art. 112 and 115 of the Code are referred to: Art. 5 of Decree No. 74 and Art. 2 of Decree No. 78).” Foà also clarified at the hearing what he had already told us: “loan is a different institution from concession in use,” “loan and concession differ normatively and ontologically.” To be precise, “the assessor’s decree ’Catania Charter’ is not very straightforward in its legal formulation, because it recalls a previous regional discipline on loans (exit from the regional territory and temporary loans), in addition to the discipline on the public service of valorization, while its object is the concession in use of cultural goods. The regulatory framework introduced does not seem to provide a homogeneous set of legal instruments with respect to the purpose advocated and the effectiveness of the full valorization of cultural property subject to such discipline.” We had, in fact, immediately noted the attempted hybridization of the two institutions, which, according to Tarasco, would be legitimized by an alleged less exhaustiveness of the discipline under Art. 48 (loans) than under 106. When, instead, Foà explains, “the codictic discipline on loans is complete and punctually specified by ministerial decrees and circulars. Concession, on the other hand, referring also to real estate, requires the ”cultural“ destination of the property (art. 106, c. 1) and its compatibility with ”the historical-artistic character of the property" (art. 106, 2-bis): the codictic clarifications are not accidental, if one thinks of the bitterly contested cases of concessions for uses incompatible with the cultural character of the property (archaeological parks transformed into gigantic DJ sets or museum halls open to wedding banquets, about which we have written frequently).

An attempt, this one, that constitutes the dangerously innovative charge of this legislation, which, the result of an interpretation of valorization in purely economic terms, not surprisingly aspires to lead the way in the rest of the country. With caution, therefore, it should be dismissed as “a duplication of state laws.”

And before it is even implemented one damage has already been produced by this “revolution” in autonomist sauce. Of image. That of a Sicily that lags behind the rest of the country, crushed by the admission of defeat for the inability of the Region with exclusive competence in the matter to fulfill the institutional task of protection and enhancement in public places of its cultural heritage.

It is done differently in the rest of Italy

Merciless comparison with “policies” of valorization of deposits such as that of the "Uffizi Diffusi," which aims to relocate works from deposits throughout Tuscany to public museum spaces. Not in hotels or shopping centers.

While in Sicily with the Charter they would like to entrust university student trainees with an activity such as cataloguing, at the Paestum Archaeological Park professionals are owed the new online digital catalog, where catalog information, archival documents or monumental heritage can be consulted. At the Civic Museums of Verona, on the other hand, the lockdown was the impetus for initiating a project involving the University of Verona and the city’s Academy of Fine Arts that led to the cataloguing of works in the ministerial platform SIGECweb. “We will work a lot on the deposits,” “it is an aspect little known to the public but that deserves to be studied in depth”: this is the bet of the new director of the Borghese Gallery Francesca Cappelletti. And still in Mantua for Stefano L’Occaso “we can still create the suggestion of what Palazzo Ducale could have been thanks to the finds we have in storage.” While James Bradburn has implemented the democratic mission of “bringing Brera back to the heart of its city and the visitor to the center of the museum” also with solutions such as the “visible museum” that intersperses, without interrupting it, the visit path with the repositories of the works: as if in the theater the viewer could spy behind the scenes and what happens backstage could burst onto the scene. But without going too far, we have already seen, that in the same city of the Charter, in Catania, the forced closure of museums was the occasion for an unprecedented reorganization of the deposits of the Ursino Castle Civic Museum.

What does the opposition’s resolution commit the regional government to? A constructive no

The resolution represents a constructive no, proof that when it wants to, politics knows how to listen to the voice of technicians. Calling on the regional government to “withdraw in self-protection D.A. 74/Gab. of Nov. 30, 2020 and D.A. 78/Gab. of Dec. 10, 2020 of the Regional Minister of Cultural Heritage and Sicilian Identity,” the document outlines two actions. The first in the long term, which commits the government to implement what is within its competence for the cataloging and enhancement of assets in the “reserves” of museums and superintendencies “in order to increase the number of works usable by the public in the currently existing exhibition spaces and to create new exhibition spaces.” The other in the short term and in a proactive spirit, substituting, for the form of “external” management of valorization envisaged by the Charter, the concession to the private sector of the valorization service within the cultural institutions themselves, where only that osmosis between permanent collection and reserves can be guaranteed. In particular, it is suggested that “public evidence procedures” be adopted that look "also at ’start-up’ companies as defined by Decree Law No. 179 of October 12, 2012 and/or ’youth companies’ as regulated by Law 44/86 that have personnel meeting the requirements of Art.9 bis of Legislative Decree No. 42 of January 22, 2004, and that pursue the objective of valorization in exhibition spaces owned by the Sicilian Region and/or under its exclusive management." Here we begin to talk seriously about paid work.

Yes, then, to a private sector remaining an ally of a suffering public administration. No, instead, to hasty abdications to the private sector of institutional tasks.

For Valentina Zafarana, the first signatory of the resolution, and the other Cinquestelle deputies, Giovanni Di Caro, Stefania Campo, Ketty Damante and Roberta Schillaci, “this instrument could create irreversible damage to our cultural heritage and therefore must be stopped.” “These decrees,” Claudio Fava, of the Centopassi, on the other hand, says, "are the result of an inadmissible misunderstanding, namely the idea that the Region’s museum deposits are just dusty warehouses. For Pd deputy Nello Dipasquale, “Councillor Samonà missed the opportunity to initiate a serious and constructive confrontation within Parliament’s culture committee. He preferred to impose a path that he had already started in complete solitude, instead of, with humility and responsibility, suspending or withdrawing an act that he had given birth to with the contribution of a few friends.” Creators of the charter, let us remember, are the former superintendent of cultural heritage of Catania, Rosalba Panvini, and the SiciliAntica association.

And if Samonà is already talking about the “notice that will be subsequently published by the general manager of Cultural Heritage,” the center-left instead announces “a motion to be brought to the House so that the entire Parliament can express itself on the issue and directly commit the government there so that this havoc is stopped.”