Flanked by the Madonna and St John, Christ dies slowly on the cross, his sage-green loincloth almost as radiant now as when it was painted nearly 800 years ago.
“It hasn’t been restored,” insists Annalisa Bellocchi, my guide. “That’s how it was found.” Although badly damaged in parts, the image pulses with a visceral, primitive energy.
The Crucifixion decorates the crypt of San Colombano, a church in Bologna founded in the seventh century. Bellocchi explains that at the end of the 15th century, the crypt was blocked with earth, creating a lightless tomb that helped preserve the pigments. It was only rediscovered in 2005 when the church floor was repaired. Now research by Franco Faranda, an art historian with the Office for Artistic Heritage in Bologna, suggests the fresco is a work by the early 13th-century artist Giunta Pisano.
If it is, then San Colombano is home to a truly precious image: Pisano, who was probably an influence on Cimabue, is thought to be the first artist to depict the dying Christ as a man in pain rather than an erect godhead.
The discovery of the fresco is the most spectacular but by no means the only achievement of an urban restoration project called “Genus Bononiae: Museums of the City”. Funded by the Carisbo Foundation, the charitable arm of the Cassa di Risparmio of Bologna, a bank, the €70m programme began in 2000 when the Foundation started to buy or lease historic buildings in disrepair.
When restoration is completed, explains Bellocchi – who is the foundation’s press officer – Bologna will have a network of new public spaces, including a museum of local history, various exhibition venues, a concert hall and a library.
Fabio Roversi-Monaco, president of the foundation, says it is passion for this city that has motivated him to create Genus Bononiae. “Bologna is one of the most glorious cities in Italy, indeed the world,” he declares as we chat in the foundation’s headquarters. “We wish to give back to the city a sense of itself and its past.”
No one is better versed in his city’s virtues than Roversi-Monaco. From 1985 to 2000, this professor of jurisprudence was rector of Bologna University. Though its lustre has dimmed recently, the world’s oldest university remains the backbone of Bologna’s identity as Italy’s most independent-minded, intellectual metropolis.
A stronghold of progressive communism for much of the last century, Bologna was a rare example of corruption-free, civic efficiency in Italy. Recently the picture has been less rosy. Wearied by rising crime and urban decay, citizens elected a centre-right administration in 1998. Though power subsequently swung back to the left, in January this year the mayor, Flavio Delbono, resigned after allegations that he had misused public funds. The council is being run by an interim administration.
Still, Bologna remains one of Italy’s most pleasant cities. As I tour the compact centro storico with Bellocchi, we are shielded from the July heat by vaulted arcades, some of which date to the 12th century. The streets are lined with palaces and churches whose red-brick facades are the architectural signature of a metropolis far from the marble quarries that nourished Florence, Venice and Rome.
Only glimpses of terracotta are visible through the scaffolding sealing Palazzo Fava. Formerly owned by a hotel, the building was rarely on public view despite being home to frescoes by Bologna’s most illustrious painterly sons, Ludovico Carracci and his eponymous cousins Agostino and Annibale. When restorations are complete, the palace will be an exhibition space primarily dedicated to the foundation’s own art collection.
It is hard not to feel a frisson of unease that Genus Bononiae risks becoming a private local empire. No public buildings have been sold to the Carisbo Foundation, but several have been acquired through concessionary agreements with civic bodies.
Such moves might raise more alarm if Italy’s banking foundations did not command high public esteem. They benefit from the centuries-old reputation for good works established by the casse di risparmio. Originating in the 19th century, these were local, cash-based banks for small-scale investors with a charitable duty written into their statute. Their foundations only came into existence in 1991 when a law was passed separating the not-for-profit activity of the casse from its commercial counterpart. Now most casse di risparmio are owned by Italy’s two biggest banks, UniCredit and the Banca Intesa Sanpaolo (owner of Carisbo).
Most foundations operate by making donations to third parties. What is unusual about the Carisbo Foundation is that it is both funding the restorations and subsequently managing the sites itself. Roversi-Monaco says this decision is partly motivated by diminishing faith in his country’s capacity to manage its heritage; Silvio Berlusconi’s administration has cut the cultural budget by €891m in the period from 2009-11.
“We are grateful to the foundation because the financial support from the ministry is always less,” says Paola Grifoni, Bologna’s superintendent for artistic heritage. Head of the local ministerial office charged with maintaining Italy’s cultural heritage, Grifoni is overseeing the foundation’s restorations every step of the way. However, her own budget was cut by 50 per cent last year.
Yet in these straitened times, private flows of capital are hardly guaranteed. In the past two years, the Carisbo Foundation’s annual income, which primarily derives from dividends from the bank, has plummeted from €140m in 2008 to €35m in 2010 (though that is an increase of €13m from 2009). Roversi-Monaco, however, insists that there is “no danger” that he will not be able to finish what he has started.
Genus Bononiae has been received with enthusiasm by Bologna’s population. In a country with an embarrassment of cultural riches and a beleaguered economy, it is little wonder that few manifest qualms at this apparently irreproachable project.
Yet as I sit on the train taking me to Venice, a city now so cash-strapped its last council seriously considered a sponsorship deal with Coca-Cola, I wonder what the implications are, say, of Palazzo Pepoli. This exquisitely stuccoed palace is being transformed by the foundation into a museum dedicated to the history of Bologna. The city council hails it as a “service for everyone”. But should the keys to a public story really be held in private hands?