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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TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Ever visited a picture-perfect Italian village that felt too idyllic to be real? There's a reason for that, says reporter Silvia Marchetti.

TRAVEL: How to spot Italy’s ‘fake authentic’ tourist villages

Italy’s many beautifully authentic, ancient villages are a major reason why foreigners flock here, fall in love with the lifestyle, and often settle down for good. 

But in some places, that ‘dolce vita’ feel can be so well-fabricated that it is just fake.

It might have happened to you that while visiting an apparently idyllic borgo, or village, you felt there was something totally off with it; be it the neat windows, the empty, shuttered houses, the lack of locals around. Maybe it was so picture-perfect it seemed unreal.

There are places that have been totally restyled and hence lost their soul, and are just mere tourist postcards that contribute to distorting the real image of Italy abroad. 

They appear to be medieval, but even if they do date back centuries they’ve been given such a thorough makeover that everything is tidy and shiny, giving you the impression of being on a movie set.

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I’ve visited some of these villages, and what hit me was the attempt to recreate that ancient vibe just to fool visitors – while at the same time destroying what Italy’s authentic villages are all about.

Most have been elegantly restyled. This is positive given they might have otherwise ended up in the grave as ghost hamlets, but the extreme ‘maquillage’ has killed the original spirit of the place.

The ancient village of Castelfalfi, in Tuscany, dates back to pre-Roman, Etruscan times and is – was – a jewel. Following massive real estate investments it has turned into a luxury retreat for wealthy foreigners looking to bask under the Tuscan sun. 

Pretty as a picture – but where is everyone? Castelfalfi, Tuscany. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

During winter everything is shut, boutiques sell modern things and signs are written in English. The vast estate, formerly belonging to aristocrats, has been transformed into a huge golf club, and local residents are nowhere to be seen. There’s even a high-end restaurant in the castle tower for lavish meals. But no matter how beautiful it is, it gave me a feeling of sadness and emptiness.

I think places like this feed and recreate that stereotypical idea of a typical rural Italian setting, of elegant mansions with pools, ceramic boutiques and flower shops.

Nearby the village of Certaldo di Castro is another example of a fake old-style spot. It is indeed medieval and is famous for being the hometown of Italian poet Boccaccio: his museum-house is a must-see and the main highlight. You get to admire his room, bed, slippers and nightgown – that’s why I visited.

But other than that, it seems like the whole village has been rebuilt solely on Boccaccio’s legacy – there are just a few bars, restaurants, and B&Bs. No real village buzz, no elders sitting on benches. Last time I went, and it was during Christmas, most places were closed and I ended up eating a panino. 

The reddish roads and brick tile roofs have been perfectly fixed as per medieval style, and the chapels are also stunning. But life seems to have been frozen in time when Bocaccio inhabited it.

Certaldo di Castro has impressive medieval history but no village life. Photo: Silvia Marchetti

I recently drove hundreds of miles to explore what has been named as one of Italy’s most beautiful towns, Greccio. I found a ghost town.

It was perfectly renovated, but all shutters were down and not one single resident could be spotted. There were just holidaymakers having picnics on benches.

The streets were super clean. The stone walls were covered in paintings by local artists, hailing peace and friendship among countries; images that have nothing to do with the town’s old roots, nor character.

I must say it was a real disappointment. It surely is one of those places that come to life on weekends or during summer, when people visit. It is not ‘vissuto‘, as Italians would say, meaning it is not ‘lived’.

READ ALSO: Ten must-see places within reach of Rome

In the Tiber valley, the Calcata hamlet is a top destination for Romans looking for a weekend escape. The village is aesthetically charming, shaped like a giant mushroom jutting out of a deep green chasm. It’s perched on a reddish-brown hilltop overlooking a pristine river, with cave houses, moss-covered cobbled alleys, tunnels and wall openings overlooking a thick jungle-like canyon. 

But the original residents no longer live there and it’s become a ghetto of hippies and artists who each weekend come to turn it into an Italian-style Halloween village. Witchy objects, pumpkins and puppets are everywhere, while souvenir shops and boutiques sell weird, spooky amulets. Benches and doors are painted in bright colors and restaurants prepare exotic dishes.

This has killed the original old vibe, and though I love the scenery, I dislike the ambiance and village decor, which has nothing to do with its history.

Calcata is very similar to Civita di Bagnoregio, also in the Lazio region, dubbed the ‘dying city’ as soil erosion could make it crumble any day. 

Civita is world-famous for its dramatic scenery: sitting on a rock surrounded by a precipice, one single narrow bridge connects it to the mainland. I visited it several times: ten years ago it was lively. 

Two years ago, it was Easter, and I found a dead city. Just three locals going up and down the bridge, and a colony of hungry cats. It’s just luxury expensive B&B’s, taverns, souvenir boutiques and spots for selfie addicts. Artists and VIPs use it as their lair, yet despite its breathtaking beauty there’s really not much left.

I stayed the night once and ended up taking the car and driving to the nearest town for a slice of pizza for dinner because I couldn’t find an open trattoria.

If you can’t find so much as a single tavern open, no matter which day you visit, and if you don’t overhear some chit-chat among local grannies or some gossip at the bar, then you’ve likely landed in a ‘fake-authentic’ Italian borgo: perfect but unreal.