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Why is Italy’s plan to charge for entry to the Pantheon so controversial?

Foreign visitors may think a fee of just a few euros to see Rome's famous Pantheon is more than fair, but the suggestion of charging for entry at all has sparked anger in Italy. Silvia Marchetti explains what the controversy is about.

Why is Italy's plan to charge for entry to the Pantheon so controversial?
Rome's Pantheon is currently free to visit. A proposed ticket price of just two euros has caused a politial row - and Romans in particular are against it.  (Photo by Tiziana FABI / AFP)

The plan to charge an entry fee at the Pantheon, launched by Culture Minister Gennaro Sangiuliano, turned out to be provocative and very controversial and has once again triggered political mayhem. 

Every two or three years a politician comes up with this idea, which is soon deemed preposterous and shelved. 

READ ALSO: Rome’s Pantheon to start charging visitors for entry

Even if the proposed fee would be just a couple of euros, less than a slice of pizza or a cappuccino, and a ridiculously low sum any foreign visitor would be glad to pay, Romans in particular are against it. 

This is down to the general belief among Italians that their artistic and historic monuments and sites are a ‘common good’: part of their national heritage, particularly the most popular and iconic sites.

As such, entry should be free. Citizens have the right to fully enjoy taking in the views of a church or a sanctuary without having to pay even 50 cents. 

Italy has an enormous treasure trove of artistic jewels, but despite the high value of its unique sites and monuments Italian culture is ‘cheap’, for free access or a low ticket downgrades the artistic offer in my view. 

I believe Italian churches should also charge tourists a fee for entry, as it would help support maintenance costs – and this includes popular (yet free) sites such as the Pantheon, which is one of the most visited in Italy. 

The trouble with the Pantheon lies in its dual nature which makes any entry fee a particularly thorny issue. The Pantheon is a basilica-mausoleum built on a former Ancient Roman temple, where mass and religious celebrations are regularly held on specific calendar dates.

There are tombs of Renaissance artists and Italian, alongside pagan relics. As with all churches in Italy, it is kept open and free for believers who wish to come and pray. 

However, the Pantheon is mainly a tourist hotspot rather than a mystical pilgrimage site, and is always packed like a McDonald’s, with visitors sitting outside eating paninis and gelato and feeding crumbs to the pigeons. 

Adding an entry fee would limit the crowds and keep the entire Piazza della Rotonda in order. I would actually raise the ticket to at least five euros. 

Those in favour of charging for entry to the pantheon say the revenue could be used to keep the surrounding area in order. Litter and overflowing rubbish bins are a regular issue in summer. (Photo by Andreas SOLARO / AFP)

To many Romans the Pantheon is the symbol of their identity, a bit like the cradle of their own ancestry, so now the city council is pushing to exempt people living in the Eternal City to pay the entrance fee if it is ever applied, which in my view would create a form of discrimination. 

If an attraction is free for everyone, then it follows that everyone should pay if there is an entry ticket. 

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

I remember once meeting an American lady in front of the Pantheon who, before going inside, pulled out her wallet and asked me “how much is the ticket?” Her question took me by surprise because I’d never given much thought to the fact that it was a normal thing for Italians not to pay to admire the Pantheon. After all, I thought, it’s ours.

When I told her there was no need for money she was surprised and replied “you have such beautiful sites that are unique in the world and must have a cost”.

I think the whole political and social controversy stemming from turning the Pantheon into a payable attraction is due to a perverse sort of ‘artistic inflation’. 

Just because we have so many (probably too many) artistic and historical monuments in Italy, we tend to consider these our own property and to take it for granted that they belong to all Italians as precious jewels of our common heritage.

Therefore, access must be public and open, with no restrictions whatsoever. 

OPINION: Italy must update its image if it wants a new kind of tourism

In Italy there is a widespread ideal of ‘bene pubblico artistico-culturale’ (artistic and historic public good) which is sacrosanct. According to this ‘dogma’, said public good – be it a church, temple, or ruins – must be ‘fruibile a tutti’ (available and accessible to everyone).

If on one hand this is a very democratic approach, on the other it drains precious resources for the upkeep of a vast artistic heritage which cannot be managed with public money alone.

I think the controversy surrounding the potential two-euro entry ticket to the Pantheon is absurd, but predictable, and by now embedded in the Italian mindset.

It would be a good way to raise revenues to contribute to the maintenance of the site, but Italy lacks an entrepreneurial approach when it comes to exploiting and cashing in on its huge artistic inheritance.

Member comments

  1. It would reduce the number of people visiting and may control the crowds a bit.

    As a tourist and a respectful visitor to any holy site, I make a donation at each where there is a place to do so.

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For members


OPINION: Why claims Italian cuisine is a ‘modern invention’ have angered Italy

An article featuring the claim that tiramisù, carbonara and other iconic Italian dishes were “invented” in the postwar period has gone viral online and caused uproar in Italy. Silvia Marchetti explains why the debate has touched a nerve for so many Italians.

OPINION: Why claims Italian cuisine is a 'modern invention' have angered Italy

If there’s one thing Italians do not accept, it’s messing around with the culinary traditions which reflect our identity.

So it’s no surprise that food historian Alberto Grandi’s theories on the origins of several iconic Italian foods, which in his view aren’t really Italian but made-in-the-USA, have caused such a stir in Italy and made the national headlines after they were shared in a Financial Times article published this weekend.

READ ALSO: Why do Italians get so angry if you mess with classic recipes?

Television talk shows have debated his controversial theories. Farmers’ lobby group Coldiretti and trade union Unimpresa issued statements slamming Grandi’s words as an “attack” against Made in Italy products, saying they risk favouring counterfeit Italian-sounding goods made abroad.

Grandi’s claims that tiramisù, panettone, pizza, and carbonara pasta are either recent products born after the second world war or inventions made by Italian emigrants to the US have also triggered mayhem on social media. Readers of online news outlets condemned his views as “preposterous”, “based on ignorance”, the “product of envy” and an attempt to “start the third world war”. 

Tiramisu: not ‘traditionally’ Italian? Photo. Kasturi Roy/Unsplash

What shocked me most is that Grandi is Italian, as is the writer of the FT article. To say that Italy’s food tradition is an invention which mainly kicked off during the post-war period is either a lie or just historical ignorance which erases millennia of rich food heritage.

The idea of Italian food today comes both from experience (people taste and remember it) and from globalization, which hails all the way back to the Ancient Romans’ conquests. Cicero in one of his works writes about laganae, the ancestors of lasagne and pasta, while another Roman writer about savillum cake made with cheese, very much like the US-style cheesecake with which it likely shares a common gene.

READ ALSO: Four myths about ‘traditional’ Italian food you can stop believing

As for panettone, christmas cakes with raisins and candied fruits were made during the middle ages and in the Renaissance, when many recipes were exported by the Medici family to European courts. Pilgrims, travellers and monks also did their share as ‘food ambassadors’.

And Grandi’s argument that pizza didn’t exist beyond the streets of “a few small southern cities” because there weren’t any pizzerias until the post-war period misses a key point: Pizza was born as a street food and take-away meal, and has been made in bakeries or sold by vendors in town squares since at least the 1600s. As is still the case nowadays, pizza al taglio (sliced pizza) was savored al forno.

Pizza al taglio in Rome. Photo: sarahcreates/Unsplash

Pizzerias as actual establishments became popular in Naples from the early 1800s and later spread to the rest of Italy, only reaching Sicily and Piedmont at a much later stage – because pizza is neither Sicilian nor Piedmontese. Surely, the reason why those American soldiers who according to Grandi were amazed to find no pizzerias in the land of pizza was probably because most shops and bakeries had been shut, raided or bombed during the war.

Traditional food has always existed in family homes in Italy. Just because in the 1950s Romans did not eat carbonara every single day doesn’t mean they hardly ever ate it at all. Farmers’ simple, traditional dishes have also always been around, and even after the postwar economic boom Italian families kept eating these even though they were wealthier and could afford to raid the supermarket shelves. 

My mother for example kept indulging in home-made gorgonzola blue cheese with crawling maggots at her granny’s farm in Cuneo, even when her father was a top-ranking military general. Money or newly acquired social status doesn’t change eating habits if one is anchored to them by a long-standing family tradition handed down across generations.

READ ALSO: Three meals a day on schedule: Why do Italians have such fixed eating habits?

Also, the idea of grandmas serving frozen lasagne back in the old days in Italy is pure fiction. There were no freezers, and my granny still recalls when ‘ice men’ roamed the countryside selling blocks of ice from the mountains.

Emigrants indeed played a great role in exporting and advertising Italian dishes abroad, but they adapted these to local tastes and ingredients, thus paving the way for alternative, non purist versions of a dish. Take Mac ‘n’ Cheese, a twist on ‘maccheroni con formaggio‘ with Cheddar – a dish you will never find in Italy.

It is a product of emigration, as decades flew by many emigrés forgot their ancestors’ real recipes. Original Italian gelato brought to America and the UK by Italian ice-cream makers who later built an empire has little to do with artisan Italian gelato made today in Italy. In the same way, the iconic Philly Roll born in Philadelphia, invented by a migrated Japanese chef, is an American product rather than a pure sushi dish.

Grandi’s words have uncanny timing. The Italian government is planning to propose Italian food for UNESCO world heritage status, which will boost the fight against Italian-sounding products such as parmesan made abroad. His view is seen by many in Italy as an attempt to sabotage this candidature by suggesting that Italian food is the end-result of a contamination or mix of several different cultures, that it is not entirely the merit of Italy. 

With no real proof, arguing that Italian cuisine is not traditional is to fight a losing battle.

Do you agree or disagree with the opinions expressed in this article? Leave a comment below to share your thoughts.