Big firms are restoring the nation’s glories in return for publicity

Why does Sheikh Mansour own Manchester City? Because it is a good business. It’s a prestige purchase that gives him exposure. You could say that the Roman Colosseum is a living, breathing thing, more than just a millennia-old monument. But in its own time, it was the Etihad Stadium par excellence. Diego della Valle, a Berlusconi-type figure yet with unimpeachable ethics, has chosen to enliven the smog-dusky outer layer of the amphitheatre, cleansing the pores of its travertine stone, with a three-year facial.

Other sites given the catwalk spit-shine include the Spanish Steps, renovated by Bulgari, and the rat-plagued Trevi Fountain, burbling again thanks to Fendi. Salvatore Ferragamo donated £500,000 for eight galleries in Florence’s Uffizi Gallery to be refitted. Renzo, meanwhile, restored the Rialto in Venice.

Passing the Spanish Steps, next to the Keats/Shelley House, I was reminded – as I was by so much in Rome – of Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias”, the king of kings, whose “frown/ And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command … [said] ‘Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair’ ”. Centuries later, all that was left was “the lone and level sands stretch[ing] far away”. The sands of time, it seems, do not blow free in Rome’s eternal city, grasped as they are by the Italian government’s idea of allowing private sponsors the “heirloom cachet” of attaching themselves to mythical touchstones of Imperial Roman and Renaissance culture.

Urban Vision, which acts as bridge between corporate sponsors and historic landmarks, is all about the soft approach – not giving brands too much of a footprint on the monuments they are helping rebuild – such as their sensitive awnings over Milan Cathedral during a recent project.

When I was in Rome we visited the unveiling of the newly midnight-blued, gilded and flora-filled Cortile del Pappagallo, a fresco decorated with flowers, luxuriant verdancy, bird life and lapis-blues and gold framework. It is an only partly covered space, painted in 1505 under Pope Julius II (he of the famous Raphael portrait). The work was introduced to a well-heeled crowd in the Vatican’s Apostolic Palace (the Sala Regia, to be precise) by Archbishop Georg Gänswein, personal secretary of Benedict XVI.

The preservation of the heirlooms of Italian Catholic culture is essential. Jesus’s arrival on earth dislodged a spree of creation, a living, explorable palimpsest of the body of Christianity. The Caravaggios of Rome’s Santa Maria del Popolo, Ghiberti’s Baptistry doors in the Piazza del Duomo in Florence and Bernini’s baldachin in St Peter’s (all but the last are projects Urban Vision has a hand in) are, in a sense, all moulds of the Word.

Over a plate of fiori di zucca fritti, my friend at Urban Vision recalls when Berlusconi exalted her home town in northern Italy by saying that they were the hardest-working people in the world. Indeed, it was the period just following the Second World War, when the distretti produttivi – manufacturers of leather, wool and silk around Milan and Verona (as well as San Marino and Florence) – rejuvenated the Italian School of fashion, rivalling the French brands. Italian fashion may be behind in precision machinery and metal products, yet it still accounts for a large tranche of the nation’s exports.

In 2011, the newspapers fulminated: “Berlusconi privatises the Colosseum”. They were referring to a sponsorship deal with Tod’s, the luxury textile company. As part of the deal, Tod’s was granted some rights to use the landmark’s image, which prompted lawsuits.

Meanwhile, reports of the Neapolitan Camorra infiltrating the subcontracting of the restoration of Pompeii gave a moment’s unease to those hearing about seemingly flimsy privatisations of patrimonio storico.

But my visit to the Cortile del Pappagallo provided ample evidence that, while it took the Italian central bank to bail out Monte dei Paschi, the world’s oldest bank, the Italian private sector is, for now, able to take the strain of Italy’s historic stadia, old masters, piazzas and leaning towers – adding a seamstress’s stitch to the injuries suffered by these monuments over time.

This article first appeared in the February 17 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here