On the Refusals of the Soprintendenze

I feel compelled to intervene in the debate triggered by Valentini’s article “Tutti i no delle Soprintendenze…” “All the Refusals of the Soprintendenze”) (here and here: in Italian) that appeared in La Repubblica last Sunday. I do so not to defend a professional category nor to argue in favour of safeguard and its history in Italy; others who are more authoritative and knowledgeable than me have already done so.

Reading Valentini’s article, which ascribed all responsibility for the disastrous state of Italy’s cultural heritage to the “refusals” of us poor civil servants, made me reflect on my generation, which entered the civil service in the early 1980s after passing difficult entrance exams, young, strong and full of ethical and cultural fervour. We are the generation who renewed Italian archaeology, trying out the new methods developed in the Anglo-Saxon and academic worlds, who introduced preventive archaeology with “maps of archaeological risk” in local planning documents, who developed urban archaeology, who opened up our digs to the emerging professional world.

For these reasons, it is shocking to see ourselves being described as politicized, demotivated and old, and – above all – responsible for Italy’s demise! Parbleu! I hadn’t noticed, now I have this to deal with as well. Certainly tomorrow, when I go and carry out an inspection, I will feel even more delegitimized. Do you want to simply get rid of us? Fine, but how will you replace us considering that we are responsible for a complex civic task established in Art. 9 of the Italian Constitution? This is a sensitive issue, since after many years I have become increasingly certain that “knowledge – safeguard – enhancement – management” are a single activity within which it is extremely difficult to draw clear boundaries. The turn of the younger generation has come, but where are they? It would be a shame not to pass on our experience to them (before we start suffering from dementia as well).

Equally, I was struck to see in the impassioned defence and well-argued criticism of heritage bodies by Prof. Andrea Carandini, which followed others made by civil society, an opening that lumps the Domus Aurea and Pompeii together as negative examples: “On other occasions they (the Soprintendenze) are in the wrong, as when … they make refusals that can only be justified by a sort of fundamentalism, that do not solve the problems of the Domus Aurea or of Pompeii”.

This is not the first time; a couple of weeks ago, in the on-line edition of L’Espresso, readers were asked to report “Monuments Imprisoned by Restoration Sites” and once again the Domus Aurea was compared to Pompeii, as “treasures concealed by sloth-like worksites”. Certainly, Pompeii and the Domus Aurea are important for ancient and later culture, but they also present very different conservation problems. I do not have first-hand knowledge on the basis of which to express an opinion on the situation in Pompeii, nor the time to investigate or obtain information directly from colleagues, but as someone with first-hand experience I wish to offer some thoughts. Every time I read and hear – increasingly frequently – the sometimes vehement accusations regarding the Pompeii Soprintendenza’s failure to spend the money allocated, I ask myself how anyone could have agreed to spend 100 million euro over two years for the rehabilitation of the site, a condition apparently imposed by Europe. It is absolutely impossible to meet this target and still respect the Code of Public Works to which all our sites are subject. The staff of the Domus, as readers of this blog can testify, have succeeded with great effort and dedication in finishing works worth a few million euro in two years, and this in itself is a huge achievement. Every day we have to make decisions, study details, resolve unexpected problems and these phases are also documented in our blog.

Safeguard and conservation is an enormous responsibility that in the case of the Domus Aurea causes fear and trembling and robs us of our sleep. Not just because we are responsible for a monument that is a symbol of ancient and Renaissance classical culture, or because we find ourselves 12 metres up on the scaffolding face to face with Pinturicchio’s signature, or with tufa blocks that crumble in our hands, but also due to the constant decisions to be taken to ensure the safety of all those who work inside every day under extreme climate conditions. I am very lucky to have a group of strong and competent colleagues (“old” and young, to return to the issue at hand) who share this burden with me, and despite it all I consider myself privileged to have worked in this field since I was very young.

I hope, Prof. Carandini, that this blog will help you to realise the enormous amount of work that we have done for the Domus Aurea as you are familiar with this monument, having dealt with it when you were President of the National Council. I want to reassure you: having refused a project that entailed inserting steel pillars into the frescoed walls down to the foundations and two internal lifts in front of the most famous decorated rooms was in my opinion an act of safeguard for the Domus Aurea: safeguard means taking care of something even at the price, if necessary – and luckily it does not happen often –, of being branded a fundamentalist. But this is now ancient history.

Fedora Filippi

Temporary Director of the Domus Aurea

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Fedora Filippi

Fedora Filippi

Scientific director of the Domus Aurea from 2009. Archaeologist and coordinator at MiBAC (the Italian Ministry for Cultural Heritage and Activities) from 1980. She is also responsible for the safeguard of the western Campus Martius and Trastevere. Coordinator for the safeguard of archaeological heritage in Rome’s Historic Centre. Director of the SSBAR historical archive. An expert in particular on urban archaeology, she has edited numerous academic publications, especially in the field of Roman archaeology.

4 thoughts on “On the Refusals of the Soprintendenze

  1. Fedora brava! E complimenti davvero!
    In questo mondo in cui tutti accusano tutti, e però nulla fanno, ci voleva proprio la voce di chi fa e fa bene, e farebbe anche molto meglio se avesse più mezzi a disposizione, e persone con cui lavorare e a cui trasmettere le proprie conoscenze. Sparare sulla croce rossa è facile, urlare pure, e inventarsi progetti fantasmagorici ancor di più. Mentre rimboccarsi le maniche e trovare soluzioni concrete è difficile e non lo fa più nessuno. E tutto va a rotoli. E’ dunque sempre più indispensabile l’esempio di chi non ha mai gettato la spugna e si adopera per portare avanti un progetto, pur tra le note difficoltà. Oggi serve solo fare e smettere di parlare.
    Ancora complimenti e ancora grazie.

  2. Hi Fedora. Indeed, your blog is fascinating – it’s so wonderful to be able to follow the important work you and your coworkers are performing in such a manner, as well as to learn about what it means to be an archaeologist. I was wondering, do you have an email address or way to contact you directly? Thanks and keep up the good work!

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