Despite financial hardship, Italy’s famed landmarks are receiving an architectural upgrade thanks to luxury patronage.

Michael Zavros
Ink wash on stationery , 2016.

It is 37 degrees in Florence and still the Piazza della Signoria is teeming with tourists. Horses and carriages make their way through the gelato-wielding crowds and the interminable queue for the Uffizi Gallery stretches out along the River Arno. It is summer in Italy, peak season, and everyone is seeking shade and cool. The normally splashing Fountain of Neptune is, however, still, empty; there is no comforting mist from its spray, for it is about to undergo a significant two-year restoration project that will see it under wraps.

Demonstrating the wisdom that charity begins at home, luxury fashion and accessories brand Salvatore Ferragamo, whose name is synonymous with the city of Florence, will donate €1.5 million to fund Neptune’s next chapter. But this is not the first time that Ferragamo has philanthropically embraced the city; other projects include the underwriting of the restoration of the allegorical statues on the Ponte Santa Trinita in 1996, the Column of Justice in Piazza Santa Trinita in 1998, and the conservation of eight rooms in the remarkable Uffizi Gallery in 2015. The Fountain of Neptune is particularly significant because it was the city’s first fountain, commissioned by Florence’s most famous patron, Cosimo I de’ Medici, he of the famed Medici family, and completed in 1547. The fountain, which consists of a large octagonal pool in Seravezza marble with four bronze sculptures placed around its edge commemorates the city’s dominion of the sea, and as such as is a major tourist site.

Ferragamo’s willingness to support the project points to a remarkable philanthropic trend in Italy, where the cash-strapped country has had to look to private monies for the upkeep of its major monuments. Put simply, there are simply not enough funds in public coffers to sustain the significant number of projects requiring immediate attention, with Italy boasting the largest number of UNESCO heritage-listed sites in the world, a heavy burden in a Europe struggling with ongoing financial woes and a burgeoning refugee crisis. “I like to think of our support of Florence’s cultural activities and the restoration of architectural assets as a virtuous partnership between the public and the private sectors and a way for our family to thank the city and recognise the close bond forged by my father and still in place today,” explains Ferruccio Ferragamo, the chairman of the Salvatore Ferragamo Group. “Everything we have done over the years has been a way for us to express our gratitude to Florence for what it has given us.”

It is not too much of a stretch to suggest that the Ferragamo family represent a new branch of philanthropists and benefactors of the ilk of the Medici, who were responsible for establishing the Uffizi, not to mention the vast majority of artworks within. Where the Medici wielded economic and political power in Renaissance-era Florence, Italian familial clans such as the Ferragamo family (which owns several hotels in Florence and Tuscany) demonstrate a more altruistic benefaction. Their contribution to the cultural heritage of the nation is economically astute as well as philosophically sound; their brand speaks to la dolce vita and thus it makes good financial sense to ensure it is maintained. Florence is, after all, the birthplace of the Renaissance, an eternal destination for tourists, scholars and historians from around the world. Its preservation as a city as a whole is vital in terms of the country’s larger economic stability, and so that the responsibility should fall to luxury brands such as Ferragamo, those that built their global reputations on a platform of ‘Made in Italy’ branding, is not surprising. Ferragamo’s commitment to the restoration of historic landmarks an example of corporate and social responsibility with real cultural outcomes, and falls under the government’s recent initiative, Art Bonus – a serious attempt to halt the deterioration of the country’s cultural capital.

Art Bonus encourages patrons – individuals, non-profit organisations and businesses alike – to make charitable contributions in return for a tax credit equal to a deduction of 65% of their donation. Earlier this year, Italy’s Culture Minister, Dario Franceschini, excitedly tweeted that donations had surpassed €100 million, a staggering figure in the current culture of fiscal anxiety. It would seem that where there is a will there is a way. This cultural infrastructure is essential; the sheer number of cultural organisations – museums, galleries, operas, archeological sites, palazzos and villas now owned by the state – represents vast numbers of jobs and for a growing unemployed population, the restoration of these assets represents a future. It’s fitting that the country should find itself looking to its historical past to ensure its economic future, and Ferragamo is but one homegrown luxury brand that has demonstrated such public generosity.

Michael Zavros
Ink wash on stationery, 2016.

In Rome, vast tracts of the city are currently veiled in branded hoarding as various museums and architectural landmarks undergo major restoration. Here, one of the most famous sites is arguably the Spanish Steps, an 18th century addition to the city made famous thanks to Roman Holiday, and which is completely cordoned off as work was begun in late 2015 on their enhancement, with tourists left instead to imagine the passage from the Piazza di Spagna to the Trinità dei Monti. Like Ferragamo’s support of the Fountain of Neptune, the restoration of the Spanish Steps is with thanks to a €1.5 million donation by luxury jeweller Bulgari, whose flagship store is located just off the Piazza on the via Condotti. The steps were last restored some 20 years ago and the travertine and marble needs cleaning and surface repair. The sheer number of visitors has worn the steps away in some places, and in others nature continues to make its claim, with small plants rising up between the cracks. It is logical to assume it will require a similar treatment in another twenty years, if not less. This may seem like a major financial impost, but the knock-on effect in terms of tourist dollars is impossible to value. For Bulgari, the refurbishment was described by the company’s chief executive Jean-Christophe Babin as a “special gift from Bulgari to its city to mark the jeweller’s 130th anniversary.

Rome is a city of fountains and in summer their true worth is demonstrated when the city swelters. But none is more famous than the Trevi Fountain, and in 2013 Rome-based luxury house Fendi announced it would fund its restoration as part of a vast project entitled Fendi for Fountains. In fact, the connection between Fendi and fountains goes back to 1977, when designer Karl Lagerfeld commissioned a short 18-minute film, Histoire d’Eau, shot by Jacques de Bascher, to present his first ready-to-wear collection for the house. Arguably the first “fashion film,” a familiar device for many brands today, the film follows a young woman on vacation in Rome as she wanders around the city in Fendi ready-to-wear, bathing in the fountains and collecting small vials of water as souvenirs.

Founded in 1925, “Fendi is Rome, and Rome is Fendi”, declared Pietro Beccari, the chairman and CEO by way of explanation. Certainly the brand is well-loved in its hometown for its continued philanthropic largesse. The Trevi’s restoration was restored in record time in just 17 months, with minimal interruption to tourists for whom throwing a coin into the fountain is a Roman holiday must-do. In celebration of the completion, and in marking the brand’s territory, so to speak, Fendi pulled of something of a fashion coup when it staged its entire runway show, to mark the brand’s 90th anniversary, on top of the fountain, with models walking on a glass runway suspended above the water.

As with Salvatore Ferragamo’s restoration of the Louvre and its subsequent fashion show within the hallowed halls of the French institution in 2013, this is undoubtedly part of the agreement of embarking on such a project in the first place, which in this case cost in excess of €2 million. And while Fendi’s staging of a fashion show atop such an important cultural landmark raised eyebrows in some of the more conservative quarters, as did Alessandro Michele’s presentation for Gucci in Westminster Abbey earlier this year, critics be damned, for Fendi has since announced it will continue its initiative with the restoration and preservation of the Gianicolo, Mosè del Ninfeo del Pincio and del Peschiera fountains around the city.

Across town, and Rome’s most famous iconic archeological relic, the Colosseum, is heaving with tourists. In a joint announcement in 2011, the president of the Tod’s Group, Diego Della Valle, and Italy’s Ministry of Culture confirmed that the brand would commit €25 million to historical site’s restoration. Tod’s was the successful bidders for the restoration project after the Italian Ministry of Culture sent out a public works bid inviting private sector sponsors to help restore the ancient Roman arena. As Della Valle explained, “We believe that because the Tod’s Group is a strong global representative of ‘Made in Italy’, it is both an honour and our duty to contribute to the support of our country’s image and credibility, as well as its cultural heritage.” The Colosseum is undoubtedly the most ambitious of restoration projects, given its scale and cultural value. Indeed, aspects of the site are continually being uncovered and antiquities unearthed.

Michael Zavros
Ink wash on stationery, 2016.

When Tod’s was originally announced as the major benefactor, concerns were raised about the danger of turning the site into a commercial venture; there was debate about cloaking parts of the arena under work in Tod’s banners, or embellishing the tickets with the company’s logo, but this has not come to pass and seems a redundant argument. These luxury Italian brands are arguably the equivalent of the original Renaissance merchants such as the Medici, for whom we have to thank for the holdings of the Uffizi. And while the cynical observer might see the restoration of these public monuments as a marketing device, the far-ranging benefits far outweigh the branding opportunity. Speaking with Forbes about the philanthropic side of his business, Della Valle explained that “in Italy, the culture issue is very urgent. Over 50% of the world’s cultural heritage is in our country, but more than often it is left to decay. Besides being an important economic resource, we have the duty to protect this heritage for everyone.”

Gucci, too, has a long history of commitment to cultural capital. In 2015, the brand was instrumental in the restoration of a suite of important tapestries known as the Prince of Dreams. The twenty tapestries were commissioned by Cosimo I de’ Medici in the 16th Century and realised by the artists Jacopo Pontormo and Agnolo Bronzino. Eighty metres in length, they depict the life of the Old Testamant figure Joseph and his fabled ‘dreams’, and on completion they went on tour around Italy. The first ten tapestries were funded with proceeds from the Gucci Museo, located in Florence, where 50 percent of ticket sales go toward restoring Florence’s most important monuments and to the preservation of cinema, in collaboration with The Film Foundation.

Elsewhere in Italy, important projects include Giorgio Armani’s restoration of Milan’s Villa Necchi Campiglio, a 1930s rationalist building designed by Piero Portaluppi, owned by Fondo Ambiente Italiano [FAI] and now a city museum, best known for its star turn in the I am love, starring Tilda Swinton. Armani was also involved in the restoration completed in late 2012 of the façade of the late Baroque church of San Francesco di Paola in the heart of Milan. Also in Italy’s capital, Prada lovingly restored that city’s most famous temple to shopping, the Galleria Vittoria Emmanuelle II, arguably the world’s first mall and home to the brand’s very first store. But its generosity is not limited to Milan. Working with FAI, Prada has restored four statues and three arches in Bologna, refurbished the Accademia delle Belle Arti in Padua, repaired a painting and a well in Bari, restored the Baroque style palace Ca’ Corner della Regina in Venice and, finally, stumped up funds for the restoration of several important Giorgio Vasari paintings that were damaged in the 1996 floods.

The list of monuments being restored is exhaustive. For the most part, tourists remain oblivious to the negotiations and significant funds being exchanged behind the scenes, and in many respects, that is as it should be. The legacy is, after all, far greater than the impact of an advertisement. Back in Florence, the tourists are still taking photographs of Neptune as he gazes out over the busy square. Ferragamo’s logo sits discreetly alongside the requisite government departments on the protective barriers, for those willing to read the detail.