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How fashion is saving Italy's monuments

By Qin Xie, for CNN
May 24, 2013 -- Updated 2129 GMT (0529 HKT)
What do purses, sunglasses and Trevi Fountain have in common? The Fendi logo.
What do purses, sunglasses and Trevi Fountain have in common? The Fendi logo.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Tod's, Fendi and Diesel all pledge big bucks to restore Italy's top tourist spots
  • Restoration is marketing strategy for luxury brands
  • Locals welcome fashion brands' input

(CNN) -- Italy is famed for fashion, food and, of course, history.

In fact, Italy has the highest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites of any country in the world.

As other social needs have taken priority in economically turbulent times, however, the country's budget for maintaining and restoring some of its greatest tourist attractions has been drastically reduced. While the Italian State Tourist Board said it couldn't supply statistics, as much as a third of culture budgets (€1.42 billion/$1.83 billion) have been cut over the past three years, according to a September 2012 report in The Daily Beast.

Restoration of historic monuments has instead been left largely to the generosity of private donors.

Step forward Italian fashion industry.

Over the past two years, several Italian fashion brands have pledged substantial amounts of money for the restoration of well known heritage sites.

In 2011, luxury leather goods company Tod's pledged €25 million ($32 million) toward the restoration of the Colosseum.

In May 2013, Diesel agreed to restore the Rialto Bridge in Venice to the tune of €5 million ($6.4 million).

In Solomeo, Umbria, cashmere brand Brunello Cucinelli is helping to restore the town that it's based in, one building at a time. The Prada Foundation, the brand's charitable art branch, has helped restore the Venetian palazzo Ca' Corner Della Regina for use as an exhibition space.

The latest to pledge funds is Fendi. The maker of high-end leather handbags has pledged €2.5 million ($3.2 million) for the restoration of Trevi Fountain, as well as Le Quattro Fontane, both in Rome.

Fendi to finance Trevi Fountain makeover

What brands get back

In addition to the PR value of maintaining a heritage site, some brands also gain substantial marketing advantages.

During the restoration of Trevi fountain, Fendi will be allowed to display its logo at the site. A plaque dedicated to the brand will be displayed at the site for four years after completion of the restoration.

Diesel is reportedly allowed to place advertising billboards over a part of the Rialto Bridge during that restoration.

Advertisements on some of their most cherished monuments don't seem to bother locals.

Restoration is another way to advertise. Diesel will place billboards over 30% of the Rialto Bridge during restoration.  Restoration is another way to advertise. Diesel will place billboards over 30% of the Rialto Bridge during restoration.
Restoration is another way to advertise. Diesel will place billboards over 30% of the Rialto Bridge during restoration.Restoration is another way to advertise. Diesel will place billboards over 30% of the Rialto Bridge during restoration.

"If someone or a company is spending money to renovate a public building, which will be covered in scaffolding, green netting or white sheeting anyway, why shouldn't they be allowed to brand their contribution?" says Primo Franco of Nino Franco Winery, speaking about the Rialto Bridge renovations.

"It is a temporary situation and renovation and restoration requires a huge amount of financing and shouldn't this investment be recognized? Funding large scale projects via the private sector is a way to protect the future of the cultural monuments in Italy."

"We were delighted to learn of Diesel's generosity in contributing to the restoration of the Rialto Bridge," said Jane da Mosto, environmental scientist, activist and co-founder of weareherevenice, an organization that seeks to preserve Venice's unique heritage.

"Each time I walk over it, I notice another facet of the incredible construction and it is an eternal reminder of the ingeniousness of Venetian architects and craftsmanship. It is also appropriate that the shop benefiting from a strategic position at the foot of the bridge is contributing to safeguarding the heritage of the city that brings it so many customers."

12 alternative Italian destinations

Private donation scandals

The marriage of corporate donors and restoration projects isn't always so warm.

In 2011, the UK-based Art Newspaper reported that the Church of Santa Maria di Portosalvo in Naples signed a contract in 2009 with restoration firm Grandi Progetti that allowed the firm to sell advertising space on its scaffolding in exchange for free restoration work.

While Grandi Progetti profited with €3 million ($3.8 million) in advertising revenue, none of the contracted restoration work was done. The article cited similar cases in at least 22 other Italian cities.

There are, of course, alternative sources of funding.

According to the Italian State Tourism Board, some restoration projects are funded by the Italian National Lottery. Private charitable trusts such as Venice in Peril have raised funds in partnership with restaurant chain Pizza Express to support restoration projects.

For now, however, cash infusions from big brands, with commercial images strongly tied to their Italian roots, seem to be just the prescription for the problems ailing various monuments. Especially with traditional entities of public maintenance lacking the necessary resources.

"The city administration is being remarkably inefficient in managing Venice and should not be allowed to become too reliant on the private sector to mop up the mess of its own messy housekeeping," says activist da Mosto.

For now, though, most locals seem happy that at least someone is around to clean up the mess, even if it means identifying history with commercial promotion.

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