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TOURISM

OPINION: Why Italy urgently needs to hike entry prices to monuments and make people pay to visit churches

It’s time for Italy to stop undervaluing its precious artistic heritage sites before they’re lost to neglect and underfunding, writes Silvia Marchetti.

OPINION: Why Italy urgently needs to hike entry prices to monuments and make people pay to visit churches
At Rome's famed Colosseum, the underground labyrinth was recently restored with funding from fashion group Tod's. Photo: Filippo Monteforte/AFP

In Italy even the most remote villages have a handful of churches and smaller chapels. Chiming bells are a regular holiday soundtrack for tourists exploring the country. Most churches date back centuries and are treasure troves of art masterpieces.

But what makes these sites even more alluring is they’re totally free to visit.

Italy boasts amazing basilicas and shrines without entrance fees – bar a few exceptions. A total of roughly 100,000 churches dot the boot, nearly 900 of them belonging to the Italian state, others to local authorities, regions, confraternities and parishes.

READ MORE: Six breathtaking Roman ruins in Italy that you’ve probably never heard of

Catholics argue that nobody should ever pay for a prayer and God’s house must never be shut in order to welcome believers at all times, but then it often happens that priceless masterpieces are vandalized by visitors and sacred relics stolen. Or, in the worst case scenario, roofs collapse due to poor maintenance tied to a lack of resources. 

If a church features unique masterpieces by Bernini and other great artists, and is in reality a ‘sacred museum’, shouldn’t people pay a fee to admire it, thus contributing to its upkeep? At least there would be extra revenue.

Italy’s religious architectural heritage is unique in the world and authorities should cash in on it. 

Politicians and governments have long debated whether it is fair and moral to introduce tickets. After all, Italy is home to the Holy See that wants an ‘open church’ policy.

There’s a totally different reality in the UK and Ireland. Westminster Abbey tickets are roughly £20 per person, while St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin charges €8 even if one just wants to light a candle and say a prayer – which causes debate, but at least there’s an income for the body in charge of maintenance.

One could argue that perhaps £20 is indeed a bit too expensive for a ticket, but €2 or €0 is ridiculous. If on one hand free entrance in Italian churches allows everyone to enjoy the mystical experience, on the other it undervalues it. 

The Madonna delle Virtu cave church and its ancient frescoes in the southern Italian city of Matera. Photo: Filippo MONTEFORTE/AFP

Other southern European countries are doing a better job in making money from churches and top sites. Entrance to the mesmerizing Sagrada Familia basilica in Barcelona, designed by Antoni Gaudí, costs €27, while the Acropolis in Athens is €20. 

Italy’s church ticket dilemma is strictly linked to the whole problem of having a ‘cheap’ culture – which comes at a high price. 

Italy has the most UNESCO World Heritage listed sites in the world, yet doesn’t fully exploit these to raise revenue for the upkeep of its huge artistic heritage, a part of which is crumbling to the ground due to neglect and a lack of public resources. 

READ ALSO: ‘More local, more authentic’: How can Italy move toward responsible tourism in future?

Tickets to the country’s archaeological sites, museums, Renaissance palazzos and medieval fortresses are way too cheap when compared to the rest of Europe and to the world. 

Think about it: just €16 to visit three sites (The Colosseum, Roman Forum and Palatine Hill); €2 to admire the stunning frescoed rock crypts in the ancient southern city of Matera. If you’re over-65 or under-18, in most cases entrance is free or reduced. Reporters never pay. 

The Colosseum is unique; people come from all over the world just to circle the fighting pit where gladiators fought against lions. If you close your eyes, you can almost hear the echo of the bloodthirsty crowds cheering for death. The ticket price should be raised to reflect the ‘experience’ the site offers. 

Same goes for Matera: the cave-dwellings date back to prehistoric times. In the middle ages fleeing Byzantine monks took refuge in them and depicted sacred images on the cold, damp grotto walls. Entire families, with their animals, later lived inside these incredible places for centuries, up until the 1960’s. How can all this history and human life be valued at just €2?

READ ALSO: Matera, Italy’s city of caves, contrasts, and culture

But there are also hundreds of other lesser-known, yet just as beautiful, artistic spots which can be visited without spending a single euro.

Tiny off-the-radar villages in Tuscany feature artworks by Renaissance masters, and there are hills surrounding Rome with medieval chapels and healing fountains cited by Dante in his Divine Comedy that have fallen into oblivion.

The archeological site of Pompeii has undergone a major restoration project funded by the European Commission and Italian authorities. Photo by Tiziana FABI/AFP

Spooky ghost towns particularly appeal to foreigners, yet we prefer to leave them to rot rather than cash in with ticket fees which could be used to bring these sleeping beauties back from the grave. 

I was shocked when I recently discovered the archaeological site of the ancient Roman town of Norba in the Lazio region. It’s a small Pompeii, but in better shape than the real one: huge stone arched entrances, intact brick houses and breathtaking temples overlooking a green valley. 

There was no ticket booth, I walked in and even used the toilet – for free. So I asked: what can I do to help? A boy sitting on a chair humbly said I could leave a tip, if I wanted, as all the maintenance work was carried-out by volunteers. 

An Italian politician once said that “culture does not feed you”, meaning the arts and history are not a profitable business able to boost GDP. Truth is, without the needed investments and with low entrance fees to monuments, Italy could starve. 

In the long run, having ‘cheap’ access to art can turn out to be counterproductive.

Member comments

  1. As a person who’s traveled to many places around the world with work, I’m a flight attendant, and on my personal time. I couldn’t agree with you more.

  2. I’m happy to pay a euro to illuminate artwork in a church, but free admission is one of the (very few) things the Catholic Church gets right.

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DISCOVER ITALY

TRAVEL: Nine overlooked Italian towns you should visit

Italy is much more than just the glamour of Rome, Venice or Florence - but some must-see destinations suffer from negative reputations, says Silvia Marchetti.

TRAVEL: Nine overlooked Italian towns you should visit

There are many underrated places in Italy far from the madding crowd that should be more valued and discovered, but which are neglected by traditional tourist routes, and in some cases, which suffer from prejudice and a superficial negative reputation.

Caserta

This town near Naples is notorious as an area which suffers from the presence of organised criminal gangs but it should be famous for so much more: it makes the best buffalo milk mozzarella in Italy (the real, original one) and has a lovely ancient district called Caserta Vecchia, which lies higher up the hills.

The town most famously boasts the Reggia, a lavish royal palace with gardens and fountains that outshines the Palace of Versailles. It’s really worth exiting the A1 highroad just to visit the Reggia.

The Reggia di Caserta, a UNESCO world heritage site and one of the great Royal Palaces of Europe. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

Lampedusa 

Everyone knows Sicily’s Lampedusa island is the ‘door to Europe’ for many migrant arrivals, and often a place of sea tragedies. Despite the gloom, it has one of the world’s top rated beaches in front of the Isola dei Conigli’ (Rabbit Island) with turquoise clear waters and powder-white sand where loggerhead turtles lay their eggs. Locals sunbathe on the rocky platforms cut into the surrounding white limestone cliffs. I’ve been to the Maldives and Indonesia but I’ve never seen a more beautiful beach anywhere.

Reggio Calabria

At the tip of the boot, the regional capital of Calabria doesn’t usually top travelers’ bucket lists – but it should. It has a lovely palm-lined seafront promenade and its main museum showcases the Riace Bronzes, the ancient Greek sculptures of two perfect men warriors, found at the bottom of the sea and listed as UNESCO world heritage attractions. I stood for hours admiring their stunning sculpted bodies, wondering if ancient men were really so hot.

Is this what men looked like 2,500 years ago? The Riace Bronzes are display in Calabria’s capital. (Photo by VINCENZO PINTO / AFP)

Termoli

The town of Termoli on the Adriatic coast is another hidden, unknown gem. Popular just as the departure port to the Tremiti islands it has a gorgeous ancient walled centro storico with pastel-colored houses and some of Italy’s narrowest alleys, with views of the traditional trabocchi, old fishermen’s wooden huts suspended above the water. Plus, it makes a superbly tasty huge brodetto fish soup. 

Orgosolo

In deep Sardinia far from the loud VIP beaches is Orgosolo, the center of the wild Barbagia, a once bandit-sacked area. The town is covered in wall paintings depicting rural life and trompe-l’oeils of grannies sitting at doorsteps and running horses. 

Trapani

In western Sicily was another unexpected pleasant surprise. I went there to embark to the Egadi islands but on my way back home I decided to visit this old seaside town dotted with dozens of white-washed chapels belonging to artisan brotherhoods. I explored a very vibrant fish market and discovered extraordinary salt pans dating back to Phoenician times, with windmills and pyramids of salt. When the sun sets the salines, surrounded by the exotic vegetation of a natural reserve, turn purple and blue. 

Trapani’s salt pans. Photo Silvia Marchetti

Milazzo

On the other side of Sicily is an industrial town where tourists go just to set sail for the Aeolian islands, which is a pity. They miss its unique historic center. The upper part of the town boasts a medieval castle-fortress with an armory museum while from the abandoned lighthouse there are breathtaking views of the entire coast, dotted with tiny rock chapels and crypts cut inside the cliffs open to the public. I never thought such a low-profile place could have so many interesting spots.

Latina

South of Rome lies this city which was founded during fascism and has been completely preserved. Its residents are often seen as fascist nostalgics, however, for history lovers it’s like traveling back in time. 

The original architecture of the 1930s includes imposing monuments, buildings and big statues hailing to the ‘Italian farmer pioneer’ which was at the core of the fascist ideology. The main city buildings still bear Mussolini’s favorite pompous mottos engraved over the entrances.

There’s a unique ‘malaria museum’ showing the story of the fight against the malaria which for centuries infested the surrounding plains. Old blood samples of infected people and different types of dried mosquitoes can be seen stuck behind glass cases. 

Terracina

Close to Latina is Terracina, another under-the-radar town right in the middle between Rome and Naples along the coast. What makes this place a must-see destination is the massive clifftop temple sanctuary of Jupiter Anxur built by the ancient Romans which is open to the public. The view stretches to Vesuvius and the temple’s reddish-golden stones glow at dawn. 

There are so many other overlooked places in Italy worth discovering, even though it often means going beyond appearances or assumptions.

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