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The ultimate selloff catch

Rome, Feb. 7 (Reuters): Could Italy put the Colosseum, once the site of bloody battles between gladiators and wild beasts, up for auction' Could Michelangelo’s David come under the hammer'

As far-fetched as it may sound, these are questions Italians have been asking as the government rolls out the red carpet for the private sector to step into the cherished realm of Italy’s millenniums-old cultural heritage.

But the man who reigns supreme in this kingdom has a simple answer. “That’s ridiculous,” culture minister Giuliano Urbani said in an interview. “I hope to inspire an authentic revolution in arts management, but nobody is privatising the Colosseum,” said the bespectacled minister as he took a break from signing copies of his new book Italians’ Treasure at a book launch.

Not surprisingly, the former minister of public administration’s “revolution” is more about number crunching than grandiose art expositions.

“Considering the size of its enormous cultural heritage, Italy spends too little of its GDP to protect it,” he said.

As a result, the ministry is putting on the pressure for more state funds, clearing the way for more private investment through tax breaks and even trying to launch a lottery that would finance only cultural projects.

But it is Urbani’s plan to put some sites under private management and a broader government proposal to sell off some state assets — including those belonging to the culture ministry — that have grabbed headlines.

“Italy is like a person with many houses but also with many debts. So we have to look at which houses are dispensable,” Urbani said of plans to auction some property.

Public outcry grew when the government issued a decree last year that transfers all state property — from ancient Roman temples to modern office buildings — into a new holding called Patrimonio SpA, controlled by the economy ministry.

Some of these assets will be sold to reduce Italy’s ballooning deficit while others can be used as financial guarantees for large public works.

Now, the government is drawing up a list of those assets which it deems should be offered for sale. “This could happen in the next six months,” Urbani said. “They’ll be mostly ancient palazzi, military barracks and 18th century jails... but nothing of artistic value.” Italy boasts over 3,000 museums, 2,000 archaeological sites and countless castles, gardens and historical buildings.

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