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SPECIAL REPORT

Asians keep Italy's icons looking shiny

They are funding the restoration of ageing monuments because Italy cannot afford to

The people of Italy call their homeland Il Bel Paese - "the beautiful country". And people in Asia are helping to keep it that way.

When Rome's famed old opera house faced the prospect of closing, Malaysian businessman Francis Yeoh came to the rescue. The CEO of infrastructure conglomerate YTL Corporation and fan of the late great tenor Luciano Pavarotti donated €1 million (S$1.55 million) to the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma to fund maintenance work and the creation of new operas to keep audiences coming.

"I am honoured to be part of such a prestigious institution as the Teatro dell'Opera, with so much history and tradition. I hope I will be able to help it do even better in the future and outshine itself, by bringing also a wave of innovation through the support of young talents," said Mr Yeoh at a recent concert in Rome.

When the Palazzo Vecchio, a mediaeval landmark in the iconic Piazza della Signoria in Florence, showed its age, the owners of Japanese luxury fashion firm Kuipo stepped in with a €780,000 makeover that is expected to be completed by next year.

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Indeed, Asia has become a veritable Xanadu for Italy. With economic times harsh and limited financial resources of its own, Italy is looking to private sponsors to fund the restoration of many of its huge artistic heritage.

Nearly 800 sites, including ancient Roman villas, palaces, monuments, castles, Renaissance squares and fountains are slowly crumbling to the ground amid neglect and lack of money.

Thus, patrons not just from Japan and Malaysia, but also other parts of the East are lending a hand, happy to invest in exchange for upping their brand's visibility in Italy and an appealing 65 per cent tax credit if they are already doing business in Italy or aim to in the near future.


Businessman Francis Yeoh (with green tie) celebrating the rebirth of Teatro dell’Opera di Roma with Italy’s Culture Minister Dario Franceschini (with beard) and other Italian culture ministry officials. Mr Yeoh donated €1 million to fund the theatre’s maintenance and creation of new operas. PHOTO: MINISTERO BENI CULTURALI

  • AMOUNTS PUMPED IN BY ASIANS

    €1m

    How much Malaysian businessman Francis Yeoh donated to the Teatro dell'Opera di Roma to fund maintenance work and the creation of new operas.

    €2m

    How much Japanese textile tycoon Yuzo Yagi donated to restore the Cestius Pyramid.

    €780k

    How much Japanese luxury fashion firm Kuipo forked out for Palazzo Vecchio's makeover.

    €65k 

    How much plastics magnate Aloke Lohia gave to restore the bronze and stone "sea monsters" statues decorating the baroque fountain built by master Francesco Tacca.

    €57k

    How much Petrochem chief executive Yogesh Metha donated to restyle the gorgeous fountain rising in front of Santa Croce basilica.

  • UP FOR RENT

    These locations are available for rent for private events, including weddings and corporate dinners:

    Forte Belvedere castle: €300,000 (S$465,000)

    Uffizi Gallery's terrace: From €25,000

    Ponte Vecchio: From €20,000

    • Piazza Ognissanti: From €20,000

    Palazzo Vecchio's "Red Room": From €3,000

    Palazzo Vecchio's "Salone dei Cinquecento": From €5,000

    Complex Giardino dell Rose (Rose Garden palace): From €4,000

    Villa Vogel: From €3,500

    Bardini Museum's hall: From €3,500

China, with its own trove of treasures, stands today as Italy's greatest potential artistic ally.

On an institutional visit to Beijing in July last year, Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini presented the Chinese authorities and firms with a list of seven strategic monuments badly in need of funds for a thorough makeover, including the lavish Reggia di Caserta that outshines in beauty the Palace of Versailles, Roman Emperor Hadrian's Villa in Rome and the Etruscan necropolis of Cerveteri, with its breathtaking painted tombs.

Now Mr Franceschini looks forward to welcoming Chinese investors in Italy's art mission.

"It is very important that there are new acts of patronage of Italian masterpieces by the private sector because our treasures belong to the whole of humanity," he said, emphasising how Italy and China nourished privileged cultural ties born ages ago with Marco Polo and Matteo Ricci.

In the case of the Palazzo Vecchio, where the town hall is located, the magnificent Renaissance frescoes of the inner Michelozzo courtyard and ancient Roman theatre underground are badly in need of restoration. That would require far too much money for ailing public coffers.

There is even an institutional website - Florence I Care- that lists "orphan" monuments looking for sponsors.

Kuipo, through its clothing label Genten, has made it a cultural mission to lend a helping hand.

"We're not just interested in fashion and business, but also architecture and art preservation are part of our firm's core business," Kuipo chief Satoshi Okada told The Straits Times through his representative in Italy. "Florence to us is the symbol of art. It fascinates us."

In fact, the city has gifted its Japanese patrons with the Keys of Florence, an honour granted to entrepreneurs who have invested in the future of Florence.

Rome has already seen two great rescues of historical monuments by Asian patrons in recent years.

In 2015, Japanese textile tycoon Yuzo Yagi donated €2 million to restore the Cestius Pyramid, a landmark of the Eternal City built by the Tiber River in the 12th century BC as a tomb for famous magistrate Gaius Cestius.


The bronze and stone “sea monsters” statues decorating the baroque fountain built by master Francesco Tacca were restored after a donation of €65,000 by Indian plastics magnate Aloke Lohia because his daughter wanted to get married in Florence in 2013. PHOTO: COMUNE DI FIRENZE

Thanks to the makeover, for the first time in ages, visitors are now allowed inside the burial chamber to admire its grandeur and beauty.

Mr Yagi personally followed the restyle works, always dressed in his typical white apparel, talking to the archaeologists and restorers. Now that the pyramid is again shining white as if it were new, he does not rule out funding more projects to revive other collapsing gems. "There are so many 'sleeping beauties' in Italy, buried underneath dust, so who knows," said Mr Yagi.

Precious Asian money flows to Italy's beauties also through lavish celebrations. A rising number of billionaire Chinese and Indian couples are tying the knot in the country.


For the first time in ages, visitors are allowed inside the burial chamber of the Cestius Pyramid (above), a 12th century BC landmark. This is thanks to Japanese textile tycoon Yuzo Yagi who donated €2 million to restore it in 2015. PHOTO: LUIGI FILETICI

The Chinese have fallen in love with the tropical-like island region of Sardinia, spending fortunes on exclusive beach ceremonies, inviting over relatives and friends, and donating money to restyle small local ancient dwellings and fortresses, such as abandoned pirate lookout towers and mediaeval farms.

Asian weddings in Italy have turned into such a major business that each year, delegations of Sardinia's hotel-keepers fly to Shanghai for the global Nuptial Tourism Fair, where they sign agreements with local tour operators to boost Chinese wedding tourism on their island.

Japanese luxury fashion firm Kuipo's donation of €780,000 has made it possible for the Renaissance frescoes of the Michelozzo courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio to be restored. And for the first time in ages, visitors are allowed inside the burial chambe
Japanese luxury fashion firm Kuipo’s donation of €780,000 has made it possible for the Renaissance frescoes of the Michelozzo courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio to be restored. PHOTO: SILVIA MARCHETTI

Indians, on the other hand, have a soft spot for Florence. Two Indian weddings recently brought to the city's public coffers a significant amount of funds. The son of tycoon Yogesh Mehta, Petrochem's CEO, chose the cradle of the Renaissance to tie the knot in 2015. So his father donated €57,000 to restyle the gorgeous fountain rising in front of Santa Croce basilica.

Japanese luxury fashion firm Kuipo's donation of €780,000 has made it possible for the Renaissance frescoes of the Michelozzo courtyard of Palazzo Vecchio to be restored. And for the first time in ages, visitors are allowed inside the burial chambe
Guests taking part in the three-day wedding celebration of the son of Indian millionaire Yogesh Mehta in Florence in November 2015. When Mr Mehta’s son chose to tie the knot in Italy, the tycoon donated €57,000 to restyle the gorgeous fountain rising in front of Santa Croce basilica. PHOTO: EPA

The daughter of plastics magnate Aloke Lohia got married in Florence in 2013. He gave €65,000 to restore the bronze and stone "sea monsters" statues decorating the baroque fountain built by master Francesco Tacca.

Both celebrations took place in the open air, on one of Florence's most spectacular piazzas, Piazza Ognissanti.

To lure more Asian couples, the city has set up a Web page, "Yes, in Florence", listing all the piazzas and historical locations for rent for the big, once-in-a-lifetime event.


The Ponte Vecchio, or Old Bridge, in Florence is up for rent for private events, including weddings and corporate dinners, starting from $31,000. PHOTO: REUTERS

Florence mayor Dario Nardella has praised all such efforts to help him restore his city's glory.

"We call all these enlightened patrons 'Friends of Florence'," he told The Straits Times. "And we think it's crucial to strike partnerships in the arts and involve foreign private companies and individuals in maintaining our treasures that are loved by the whole world."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 23, 2017, with the headline 'Asians keep Italy's icons looking shiny'. Print Edition | Subscribe