– Knight Ridder Newspapers

ROME – Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” one of the most famous portrayals of female beauty in Western art, could be just one of many masterpieces off-limits to visitors if the Italian government follows through with budget cuts it enacted two weeks ago, Italy’s cultural minister said.

Giuliano Urbani, until now a loyal member of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s cabinet, is threatening to shutter Florence, Italy’s world-renowned Uffizi Gallery if the government imposes what he said was a planned 25 percent cut in funding for museums and archeological sites.

“I have no intention of impotently assisting in a suicide,” he said in an interview published yesterday in Italy’s leading newspaper, Corriere della Sera.

Urbani said he would wait until December, the deadline for the Italian parliament to finalize the 2005 budget, to decide whether to partially or completely close the museum, which receives 4,500 visitors daily and houses one of the world’s most important collections of Renaissance art.

There was no immediate response from Berlusconi, who was vacationing at his Sardinian villa with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

This month, Berlusconi’s government enacted a plan to cut $30 billion from Italy’s national budget in order to avoid breaching European Union restrictions on budget deficits.

The measure, which included $15.6 billion in tax cuts designed to revive Italy’s anemic economy, was widely praised by financial analysts, who have been urging Italy for years to reign in its behemoth public sector. But Berlusconi and lawmakers did not disclose details of the spending reductions, saying they would be hashed out between now and December.

The budget cuts were necessary to reduce a forecast deficit of 4.4 percent of gross domestic product to 2.7 percent, so Italy would meet E.U. budget rules that limit deficits to 3 percent of GDP.

Also fueling the need for cuts is Italy’s paltry rate of economic growth and its huge public debt, which at 106.2 percent of GDP last year was the third highest in the world.

Italy’s new finance minister, Domenico Siniscalco, played down the austerity measures while addressing parliament two weeks ago, saying the cuts “won’t lead to blood and tears.”

But there certainly would be tears among art lovers over the closure of the Uffizi, a 16th-century palace just off Florence’s main square that houses works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Rubens and Caravaggio.

Urbani, a member of Berlusconi’s Forza Italia party, had been quoted in recent months expressing pride over a proposed $70 million expansion of the gallery, which would double its capacity. “We will surpass even the Louvre,” he said.

It wasn’t clear whether the budget cuts would kill that expansion, but Urbani obviously was playing a kind of political hardball familiar to bureaucrats the world over: To stave off cuts, invoke the doomsday scenario.

And don’t forget to point out the other guy’s questionable spending.

“Our artistic heritage is a trademark … a development tool tied to tourism,” he said. “Should I close the Uffizi while the state spends millions on rain research? Funds for defense for a peace mission – or for the Culture Ministry to keep museums open?”

Italy’s Defense Ministry, which has troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, has been spared the budget axe.

Italy spends about half its national income on the public sector and maintains one of the largest government bureaucracies in the world. It also is among the least productive: In a study of public-sector efficiency among the world’s richest countries by the European Central Bank last year, Italy ranked third from the bottom, besting only Greece and Portugal.

But large numbers of Italians love nothing more than a government job, and that makes a lot of the public sector waste – particularly bloated payrolls – politically untouchable.

(c) 2004, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Visit Philadelphia Online, the Inquirer’s World Wide Web site, at http://www.philly.com/

Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-19-04 1950EDT

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