Interrogating remains, destroying the past: art history and heritage conservation in southern Italy

Maria Harvey

Traditional house in Trulli, Alberobello i Fig. 4 Trulli, Alberobello. Photograph: Maria Harvey

Through an analysis of Italy’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, this article argues that we – art historians – have ignored the impact of our scholarship on heritage conservation. In conversations about how to decolonise art history, there has been little discussion about the real-life effects of our discipline’s biases and preferences, even though protected heritage sites receive more funding that their unprotected counterparts, with far-reaching consequences for communities and their histories. Sites that are not consideredsignificant’, meanwhile, are affected by carelessness, neglect, and abandonment – with often permanent losses. These losses, in turn, make it more difficult to adjust the biases and correct the injustices inherent in the canon. I argue that this relationship between the material world and art history functions as a ‘feedback loop’, which we cannot escape. Focusing on southern Italy, the article demonstrates that art history’s reluctance to engage critically with the region has meant that the to study and understand the south has meant that the protected sites fall into a series of racialised and exoticised categories that serve to reinforce central and northern Italy’s dominance in the canon and in the (inter)national imagination.

Santa Maria del Casale
Fig. 1 Santa Maria del Casale (1300-1310), Brindisi. Photograph: Maria Harvey

Destroying archives is a radical form of violence.
It targets the past, but with the aim of
eliminating the possibility of writing in the future.
Stefan Tarnowski,
London Review of Books.[1]

Landing in Brindisi means scrunching my face against the airplane window, trying to see Santa Maria del Casale (Fig. 1) from the air – it does not really matter, the church is so close to the landing strip that any passenger disembarking can easily admire it as they walk off the plane into the hot Mediterranean sun and into the airport terminal. Luggage in hand, I walk across the Kiss & Fly and rental car park, next to barbed wire and the ‘Divieto di Accesso. Zona Militare. Sorveglianza Militare,’ to visit the church; its patterned facade, the almost muqarnas-like porch, the river of fire in the Last Judgement on the west wall, the smattering of coats of arms and kneeling soldiers in chainmail, the angels, the tapestry-like panels and the immense crucified body of Christ in the Tree of the Cross. The presence of Santa Maria del Casale was clearly not enough to warrant moving the airport elsewhere or to reconsider its expansion, and so the thirteenth-century church now stands in the middle of a carpark, cut off from the surrounding countryside and sea views, and suffering the effects of air traffic less than a kilometre away. But what epistemological frameworks and value systems allowed for Santa Maria del Casale to be considered expendable in the first place?

This article will argue that, in the context of discussions over the decolonisation of the discipline, too little attention has been paid to the relationship between art history and heritage conservation.[2] I show that the two are caught in a ‘feedback loop’ in which art history shapes heritage’s categories of (in)significance, while the material condition of artworks determines their possibility of being studied in the future. Prioritising an artwork (for study, conservation, or valorisation campaigns) necessarily means choosing it over another, thus reinforcing its value, which is articulated and defined against something else. In this process, we accept that the non-prioritised artwork may suffer a certain level of neglect, if not damage.[3] If the loss is permanent, then we have closed off the possibility of studying it. Adding the problem of heritage to ongoing conversations about the future of the discipline is important because it brings the real-life consequences of our categories of analysis to the fore, and problematise what we too often consider our theoretical, abstract knowledge production.

To demonstrate the close relationship between art history and heritage, I will focus on Italy, and specifically on its first United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World Heritage Sites. By analysing the wording used in the description of these sites – which corresponds to the reasons why they were considered worthy of international protection – I will show that art history’s biases have indelibly affected heritage selection and protection. The discipline’s preference for artistic genius, innovation and autochthonous creativity must have an other to function and because in the Italian context, this other (to Florence, Siena, Venice and Rome) is the south, the protected sites have to operate within this dichotomy. Because the centre and north’s heritage corresponds to the western canon and its ideal of western supremacy, southern Italy is left with few avenues to speak: it either aligns itself with the West, especially through its ancient sites, or it speaks through a series of exoticised narratives which exaggerate its Islamic past. This narrow view obscures the majority of the region’s heritage which, once devalued, is neglected, abandoned and, in time, lost. The article closes by looking at statistical data on regional differences in heritage protection and spending, although I should add the caveat that the situation is complex, with multiple issues (including top-down development, environmental justice, criminality, etc) not included here for reasons of space.

Before we move on to a discussion of specific UNESCO World Heritage Sites, I want to contextualise some of my reflections. In February 2020, Art History, one of the discipline’s leading journals, published thirty scholars’ answers to a questionnaire about decolonising the discipline.[4] Most discussed methodologies, museum displays and curatorial choices, university syllabi, the problems of the art market and questions of restitution. However, Jill Burke, Professor of Renaissance Visual and Material Cultures at the University of Edinburgh, implicated her scholarship (regardless of its methodology) in a system in which Leonardo’s Salvator Mundi was sold for $450,3 million to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, part of a wider campaign of rehabilitation of the House of Saud that included fluff meetings with Oprah Winfrey, long chats with Bill Gates, a surface-level commitment to women’s rights and the brutal murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Kashoggi.[5]

Burke’s answer was particularly powerful because it vocalised the problem of our own role within knowledge production, an issue too seldom discussed in art history. Since the late 1980s, religious studies and anthropology have explored questions of positionality and accepted the fact that we cannot study something without impacting upon it (the so-called Insider/Outsider problem). For critical race, gender and queer studies, the relationship between the body we inhabit and the knowledge we produce is central, and constantly re-negotiated. Both positionality and the Insider/Outside problem are fundamentally questions of epistemology, but they also point to a ‘feedback loop’ that exists between the person(s) doing the studying and the object(s) of study. They highlight the fact that there is no production of knowledge in which we, as academic actors, do not change, modify, or impact our object of study. For art history, with its exceptionally tight relationship to the material world, this ‘feedback loop’ is particularly important: we cannot study what does not exist, and yet in studying we impact what does exist and in what form.

While this ‘feedback loop’ may seem somewhat obvious, western art history seldom focuses on the lives of artworks (with the important exception of scholars working on collections). This concentration on patrons and artists means we prioritise the moment of creation (or subsequent modifications), often ignoring what happens to objects between then and today. While there are many reasons for this academic focus, it does have the unfortunate side-effect of downplaying objects’ lives. This at least partly explains the use of the phrase ‘accident of survival’, which describes survival as a question of sheer luck, rather than a combination of chance and value networks. What I mean by this is that while materials, climate and natural disasters play a large role in objects’ survival, it is simplistic to consider them the only reasons. Artworks that entered major private collections early or that remained canonical throughout the centuries clearly have had a higher chance of survival, while objects that fell out of fashion were painted over, neglected, destroyed. Networks of power have dictated what people commissioned, but also what people collected and kept, looked after or abandoned.

Finally, it is important to note that, although I do think my reflections here are broadly applicable, they may be particularly relevant to Italy, where heritage conservation is enshrined in the constitution, and where national identity is articulated around axes of art, genius and creativity.[6] The disparities between the north and the south are not regional, but colonial, and entrenched in a whole series of wide-ranging dynamics of western cultural supremacy.[7] In Italy (and possibly everywhere) nation building and art history should be considered co-constitutive discourses, as they are not autonomous spheres of knowledge. Their interactions should not be understood through a unidirectional process of cause and effect, for they are not independent of each other. For this reason, art history cannot be separated from the ‘Questione Meridionale’, a particular expression of Orientalist discourse that contributed to and developed out of Italy’s Unification.[8] The term was originally coined to describe the problem of southern Italy’s poverty at the time of Unification (1861), but it is now used to describe a dichotomy that posits the centre and north as the West, and the south as its other, a liminal area between Europe and the Global South. Today, scholars agree that post-1861 Italy was ‘not a nation-state, but an Empire state, created through the occupation of a southern kingdom that was generally conceived as African soil.’[9] A hundred and fifty years after Unification, the colonial dichotomy remains noticeable, with the north typically represented as active, innovative and creative, and the south passive, unchanging and unable to produce something of value (unless imported by foreign conquerors).[10] It does bear repeating that these ideas intersect with the field of art history, the Southern Question and, ultimately, how heritage bodies appraise cultural value.



Italy has more sites included in the UNESCO World Heritage List than any other country in the world: of its fifty-five UNESCO sites, fifty are cultural landmarks.[11] This fact alone should make art historians take some responsibility, as it clearly mirrors Italy’s dominance in the canon. Closer scrutiny of the terminology UNESCO uses when describing the sites included on its list further demonstrates the impact of art history on the heritage world. I recognise that many of these descriptions are ‘simply’ dated, and that there is no mechanism to update the information once the sites become recognised by UNESCO. The texts themselves were often written by local scholars for a non-specialist public, all the while attempting to tick off UNESCO’s requirements.[12] However, they remain the texts that visitors encounter on the sites, directly forming and reinforcing people’s understanding of history, art and cultural value. In addition, and as I will show, they generally mirror traditional, hegemonic narratives in art history, ones that often remain dominant amongst the wider population even as scholars work to challenge them. This article wants to acknowledge the debt that these texts owe to the discipline of art history and to recognise the remarkable work of scholars of southern Italy in the last three decades.[13]

In the 1980s, only a handful of sites in Italy were protected by UNESCO: the rock drawings of the Valcamonica (1979), the historic city centres of Rome (1980 and 1990), Florence (1982), and Venice (1987), the Piazza dei Miracoli in Pisa (1987) and Leonardo’s Cenacolo in Milan (1980) belonged to this very first phase. In the following decade, the first southern Italian sites were given UNESCO World Heritage status: Matera (1993), Castel del Monte (1996), the Trulli in Alberobello (1996), Agrigento (1997), the Amalfi Coast (1997), Caserta (1997), Pompeii and Herculaneum (1997), the Villa Romana del Casale (1997), and Paestum (1998). While, as we shall see, central and northern Italian sites are very varied, those in the Mezzogiorno fit neatly into two categories: Classical Antiquity and exotica. The only exception is the Reggia di Caserta, described as ‘an eloquent expression of the Enlightenment in material form, integrated into, rather than imposed upon, its natural landscape.’[14]

Castel del Monte
Fig. 2 Castel del Monte, 1240, Andria. Photograph: Berthold Werner. Source:, accessed 12 March 2021.

An analysis of the descriptions of Castel del Monte, Alberobello, Matera and the Amalfi Coast reveals the deep impact of art history. Castel del Monte (Fig. 2), built by Frederick II in 1240 near Andria, is described as a ‘unique piece of medieval military architecture’ because of its ‘blend of elements from classical antiquity, the Islamic Orient and north European Cistercian Gothic.’ The description repeatedly mentions the ‘innovative hydraulic installation’ used by Frederick II ‘for bathing in accord to typical Arabic customs,’ as if southern Italy does not have its own longstanding tradition.[15] Somewhat bizarrely, the Amalfi Coast is also hailed for its links to the east, for its fusion of ‘oriental and western elements…known as the Arabo-Norman style;’[16] no matter that Amalfi was never conquered by Sicily’s Islamic rulers, and that the Chiostro del Paradiso (1266-68)in the Cathedral of Amalfi and the Rufolo villa (1260-1283) in Ravello (Fig. 3) – the only two structures that could be described as ‘Islamicising’ – date to five decades after the end of Norman rule, and were commissioned by locals (respectively the archbishop and a powerful mercantile family). UNESCO insists on this ‘Islamic’ influence, however, saying that the layout of the settlements shows ‘eastern influence: the closely spaced houses, climbing up the steep hillsides and connected by a maze of alleys and stairs, are reminiscent of the souks of the Levant.’[17]

Cloister, Villa Rufolo
Fig. 3 Cloister, Villa Rufolo (1260-83), Ravello. Photograph: Maria Harvey
Traditional house in Trulli, Alberobello
Fig. 4 Trulli, Alberobello. Photograph: Maria Harvey

The Amalfi Coast was eligible for protection because it was considered the ‘epitome’ of the Mediterranean, but also because it had ‘changed remarkably little over many centuries.’[18] This obsession with the south’s timelessness re-appears in relation to Matera and Alberobello. The trulli in Alberobello (Fig. 4) are described as a ‘remarkable example of drywall (mortarless) construction, a prehistoric building technique still in use in the region,’ even though the very next sentence specifies that the oldest surviving examples date to the mid-fourteenth century, and most are post-1620, when the settlement began to expand.[19] The exotic nature of the trulli is further exemplified by the random inclusion – in an otherwise dry paragraph on architecture – of a sentence on the ‘mythological or religious markings’ on the roofs that are there to ‘ward off evil influences or bad luck.’[20] Matera (Fig. 5), similarly, is described as ‘the most outstanding, intact example of a troglodyte settlement in the Mediterranean region’[21] – and although ‘troglodyte’ means a human cave dweller, it has negative connotations, linked to both prehistory and to ignorance. The focus is particularly strange as the accompanying image is of a late medieval rock-cut church – with aisle, apse and wall paintings – similar to those in coeval-built structures.

Santa Lucia alle Malve, Matera, Foto Arte Minore
Fig. 5 Max Hutzel, Santa Lucia alle Malve, Matera, Foto Arte Minore, 1960-1990, The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles. Digital image courtesy of the Getty's Open Content Program

These descriptions – which correspond to the reasons why these sites are protected by UNESCO – become even more striking when read in conjunction with those of central and northern Italian sites. The description for Santa Maria delle Grazie in Milan specifically mentions Bramante, the ‘unrivalled masterpiece’ that is Leonardo’s Last Supper and the fact that the work heralded ‘a new era in the history of art.’ The author uses a number of adjectives – Bramante added a ‘wonderful drum-shaped dome’ and a ‘spectacular cloister’ to Santa Maria delle Grazie; and they emphasise repeatedly Leonardo’s ‘genius’, which allowed him to ‘reject’ classical compositions and create something wholly new.[22] Similar rhetoric can be observed in the description of Pisa’s Piazza del Duomo, with its ‘four masterpieces of medieval architecture’ which ‘had a great influence on monumental art in Italy from the eleventh to the fourteenth century;’ they are described as embodying the fourteenth century’s ‘creative spirit’, and are praised for their ‘striking quality.’[23] The historic city centres of Florence, Rome and Venice are all described in relation to their cultural importance: Florence for its ‘extraordinary artistic activity’ and for the ‘work of great masters’;[24] and Venice because the ‘whole city is an extraordinary architectural masterpiece in which even the smallest building contains works by some of the world’s greatest artists.’[25] Rome also holds ‘testimonies of incomparable artistic value’, and buildings ‘with sumptuous pictorial, mosaic, and sculptural decorations, […] created by some of the most renowned artists of all time.’[26] Naples, by contrast, ‘has retained the imprint of the successive cultures that emerged in Europe and the Mediterranean basin’ and it this that makes it ‘unique, with a wealth of outstanding monuments such as the church of Santa Chiara and the Castelnuovo.’[27] In contrast to the cities of the north, the capital of the old Kingdom of the Two Sicilies has no creative powers, just ‘outstanding monuments’ – coincidentally ones which, according to tradition, Giotto frescoed.



It is not an accident that UNESCO values the south in relation to its external influences, and central and northern Italy for its autochthonous creativity; it simply reflects traditional art historical narratives. As my analysis has shown, southern Italian sites are generally described as resulting from a ‘mix’ of cultures (with a heavy sprinkling of Islamic spice), while central and northern Italian ones in relation to artists’ creativity and genius, their importance in art history (the canon) and in general for their outstanding quality. Scholars of the Mezzogiorno have repeatedly highlighted the problem with this approach, pointing out how it serves colonial constructions of Italian national identity, in which the south is racialised, othered and exoticised. Even setting aside for a moment the obvious Orientalist discourse at play here, there are deeply held art historical biases and constructs that have allowed for the narrative to flourish in this way. The value placed on artists, (male) genius, individual artworks and monuments, the need for an object to be ‘of its time’, the favouring of autochthonal creation over foreign influence, the preference for innovation at the expense of tradition – all of these are ingrained, non-neutral art historical categories and narratives that have formed out of and shaped the canon (and its belief in western superiority), and continue to do so.

Southern Italian scholarship has flourished in the last three decades, developing important and novel methodologies, rooted in a focus on movement, identity, performance, materiality, and court culture. And yet, as Nicole Riesenberg noted, of the hundred or so books published on the Italian Renaissance in 2015 none were on Naples.[28] Conferences, journals and edited books often have the same problem: out of the fourteen articles published in the last two volumes of I Tatti one and a half were on the south;[29] the last four issues of Gesta have no articles on the Mezzogiorno (but three on Pisa, Rome and Assisi). University syllabi, museum displays and exhibitions are still built around the narrative of genius of the old masters, furthering the notion that Italy is the cradle of western art, and marginalising the art of a region that does not fit within those categories.[30] Museums are particularly problematic as they are singularly responsible for transmitting these ideas to the wider public. As a case in point, many still show central Italian late medieval painting as the origin of western art.[31] At the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, for example, late medieval Italian artworks are divided between European paintings (first floor), Art of the Islamic World (first floor, different wing) and medieval, in between Byzantium and western Europe (ground floor). Transposed to Manhattan, the display suggests that Tuscany is the West, Campania is liminal and Sicily is other. Southern Italy occupies this complex space, marginal and neglected, exoticised and racialised.  I do not point this out to deny that the discipline is rapidly changing, but rather to highlight how much more work still needs to be done, to position the study of Italy within the Mediterranean, Europe, and with an eye to colonial dynamics.

In 1903, Émile Bertaux published his L’art dans l’Italie meridionale, the first and only survey of southern Italian medieval art.[32] He presents the south as rooted in classical tradition, but periodically shifting between Mediterranean and northern European influences, with the local input fundamentally passive, unable and unwilling to respond to foreign contribution. This, combined with a focus on courts and large centres such as Montecassino, has created a sense of deep fragmentation, with very little continuity. A century later, Jill Caskey argued that focusing on the local would allow art historians to move beyond Bertaux’s deeply influential model. She contends that the visual culture of Amalfi is best understood in relation to its trading network, which produced an art that cannot be circumscribed by traditionally art historical terms such as Islamic, Byzantine, Norman, etc.[33] In 2014, Linda Safran similarly showed how a focus on the local – a local that is always in process, caught in a never-ending process of transculturation – allows us to better understand the south’s visual culture, to move away from the Mezzogiorno as a periphery and instead understand it as an active, creative space.[34]

A quick overview of the literature of each UNESCO site shows the deep influence of art history on how these sites were valued. Southern Italian urban dwellings, like the trulli and the rock-cut houses in Matera, have not been studied recently, making long-standing narratives all the more influential. Bertaux, for example, calls the trulli  ‘the most ancient type of construction’ typical of a people that remains ‘in the age of infancy.’[35]And, even though almost all trulli are early modern, he states that their domes are ‘totally different’ from Roman or Byzantine ones, and especially from the ‘domes built by modern architects.’[36] The same ideas can be found in a 2003 publication by UNESCO.[37] That the historiography of Matera is obsessed with its backwardness and timelessness should not come as a surprise, seeing as it is central to the rhetoric surrounding the Marshall Plan and Carlo Levi’s 1952 masterpiece Cristo si è fermato a Eboli, set in Basilicata and titled after the notion that Christ  – who stands for Civilisation, History, Reason – never reached south of Eboli (near Naples).[38] Photographed by some of the most important artists of the era, including Henri Cartier-Bresson, Matera became central to a vision that saw southern living conditions as shameful and unchanging yet fascinating in their timelessness.[39] It is no coincidence that UNESCO uses the word ‘troglodyte’ to describe Matera’s cave-dwellings, just as it is no accident that the city was used as a set location for Jerusalem in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St Matthew (1964) and Mel Gibson’s The Passion of Christ (2004). The UNESCO description mirrors the broader art historical, artistic, sociological, political and economic discourse.

At times, narratives that highlight foreign influences instead of local creativity may be the least problematic ones. Bertaux, for example, writes that Castel del Monte epitomises the influence of French architecture, which may have come ‘from the Latin Orient or from Germany’, but became the official art of the Kingdom of Sicily by 1240. He sees Castel del Monte as a combination of classical influences and French imports, a mirror image of Frederick II’s cosmopolitanism.[40] However, the ‘mystery’ of the Castel has overtaken Bertaux’s narrative, which broadly corresponds to UNESCO’s. When I visited on a school trip in 2007, the official tour guide told us that the building could channel curative energy (a high school teacher was magically cured of their headache). In 2018, Massimiliano Ambruoso published a historiographical volume explaining why the Castel is, indeed, a castle, and not an enchanted castle, a hammam, an astronomical calendar or an alchemical factory.[41] The UNESCO website does not directly engage with these theories, but it does highlight the castle’s ‘perfect octagonal shape’ and its ‘mathematical and astronomical precision,’ suggesting that there is something afoot.[42] The official booklet notes the existence of these ludicrous, eccentric theories, legitimising the idea of the Castel as an occult mystery, if not endorsing the specific theories themselves.[43]

The exoticism that surrounds Castel del Monte is inextricable from an understanding of the castle as the product of a clash of civilisation, and especially from the alleged impact of Islam on the Mezzogiorno and its culture. Although rarely expressed in such overt terms, it is worth considering how the epistemological framework adopted by Southern Italian medieval art history allowed for a volume on the castle, published by Gangemi in 2012, to include a double-spread digital reconstruction of Castel del Monte as a hammam, replete with languid, blindingly white naked female bodies and a Black slave.[44] This obsession with the brown Muslim body is, as we have seen, present in UNESCO’s description of Amalfi – and it is so powerful that Caskey felt the need to ‘identify and neutralise it’.[45] She carefully details its historiography in a ten-page passage, harking back to both Bertaux and Adolfo Venturi (1904), who describes the region’s architecture as ‘oriental.’[46] And yet, the narrative reappeared – spun in ‘positive’ terms – in Claudio Fogu’s postcolonial The Fishing Net and the Spider Web (2020), when he discusses Procida’s domestic architecture.[47]

While it is important to highlight the connection between the historiography of our discipline and specific heritage sites, I do want to note that the scholarship has changed and, with it, attitudes in the heritage sector.In 2011, the multi-site ‘Longobards in Italy’ project was accepted by UNESCO, which includes the church of Santa Sofia in Benevento and the sanctuary of San Michele in the Gargano peninsula.[48] Because it includes seven sites throughout Italy, the project challenges narratives that see the south and the north as having two distinct histories. Another example is the 2015 inclusion of the Arabo-Norman sites of Palermo, Cefalù and Monreale. These monuments and objects have benefited greatly from the scholarship of the last two decades, starting with William Tronzo’s The Cultures of His Kingdom (1995), and including the work of Jeremy Johns, Ruggero Longo, Maria Andaloro, Isabelle Dolezalek, Sarah Davis-Secord and many others. These sites are described by UNESCO as ‘an example of a social-cultural syncretism between western, Islamic and Byzantine cultures on the island which gave rise to new concepts of space, structure and decoration.’[49] Compared to earlier descriptions of Amalfi that saw it passively receiving foreign input, medieval Sicily is now seen as an active participant innovatively responding to outside influences to create new artforms.



As I was drafting this, I kept trying to think of particularly egregious examples of mismanagement of cultural heritage and kept returning to a trio I know well: Santa Maria del Casale, now next door to the airport in Brindisi; Santa Maria della Giustizia, in the ILVA steel mill in Taranto (Fig. 6) and the destruction of the villas in Bagheria (the so-called ‘Sack of Palermo’).[50] But my argument is not that each and every single monument has been destroyed by art history’s biases, but that art history’s biases create a hierarchy of value that influences heritage protection and is entangled in a much broader set of policies. Art history’s traditional preference for artists, for autochthonous creators, for creativity and innovation remains indelibly predicated upon Vasari’s Le Vite (1568), a book that does not hide its campanilismo. It is a value system that does not work in Italy’s south, where the vast majority of the visual culture is anonymous, often imported or at least seemingly ‘foreign’ and often byzantinising (which tends to be read as unchanging).[51] The impact I am discussing here is not one of broad destruction, but of neglect: from letting cave churches in Puglia rot with mould to having to walk over piles of rubbish to access the Palazzo dei Normanni in Palermo, to the fact that almost half of all houses in the south have no building permits and that many were built by the mafia (which has often meant the destruction of heritage, most notably in Palermo).[52] It is the fact that unless these sites are a) classical; b) islamicising; or c) out of time, then they struggle to be eligible for protection.

Aerial view of the ILVA in Taranto and the church of Santa Maria della Giustizia
Fig. 6 Aerial view of the ILVA in Taranto and the church of Santa Maria della Giustizia. Google Earth, 20 September 2021.

The statistical data backs up my interpretation: the south has fewer protected areas and monuments and spends less on heritage. In 2015, Italy had 4,976 cultural structures (4,158 museums and art galleries, 282 archaeological sites and 536 monuments). Less than a tenth of these are controlled by the state, with the vast majority either private or run by local government. Of these, 2,304 are in the north, 1,417 in the centre and only 1,255 in the south and islands. An analysis by the Italian National Institute of Statistics (ISTAT) of the density of museums in a 100km2 weighted by the number of visitors shows the absolute dominance of central Italy (3.9) versus the north (1.4) and the south (0.8). The data is particularly tragic, as according to this index Campania comes third after Lazio and Tuscany. The south lags in terms of parks, villas , and historical gardens too, with only 1.2m2 protected per 100m2, compared to central Italy (1.8m2) and the north (2.5m2). Towns spend exponentially less for heritage, parks, and museums in the south: northerners spend 14.1€ pro capita, versus 11.4€ in the centre and 4.2€ in the south. Campania – one of the regions with more visitors and sites – spends inordinately little on culture: only 2.3€ per person.

As the Renaissance scholar Michael Cole stated in a short 2013 piece for I Tatti, the poverty of the south means that museums are often understaffed and even closed, in turn influencing the production of scholarship. He says that, in 2011, he found the main museums in Catania, Messina, Reggio Calabria and Capua all closed; he notes that ‘Cefalù’s Mandralisca Museum is under threat as well.’[53] The Mandralisca remains open, but it is telling that a museum holding a work by Antonello da Messina in a town with a UNESCO protected church (not to mention a famous beach, and an easy train ride from Palermo) is struggling.[54] I started working on southern Italy in 2013, and it is not so much that it is impossible to access sites, rather than sometimes famous, important sites are closed: visiting Santo Stefano in Soleto requires asking the local Carabinieri for the keys, the Tempietto in Seppanibale is on private property, the tower of Belloluogo in Lecce is closed, as is the church of SS Niccolò e Cataldo. None of these are minor sites: Santo Stefano and Belloluogo house two of the most important fresco cycles of fourteenth-century Puglia, the Tempietto is a uniquely well-preserved ninth-century gem (complete with frescoes), and SS Niccolò e Cataldo remains one of the few surviving Norman foundations in the Salento.[55] Not to mention certain inexplicable decisions I have come across – one of the most important fresco cycles of the Angevin period was in the church of Santa Maria ad Nives in Casaluce before it was detached and moved to the Palatine Chapel of the Castelnuovo in Naples. When I visited Casaluce in 2017, the detached frescoes had reappeared, seemingly because of a (correct) desire to see them reinstalled in their original site but, instead of being replaced in situ, they had been left lying around on the floor of the old sacristy.




The question is how to interrogate the remains.

Eleni Sikelianos.[56]

As with archives, destroying heritage also has major implications for our possibility of writing in the future. There are many ways to destroy heritage, few of which are as spectacular as when the Bamiyan Buddhas were blown up in 2001, or when Isis fighters filmed themselves drilling and smashing artefacts in Mosul, Nineveh, and Palmyra. Most heritage is lost through looting – whether sold through auction houses or Facebook[57] – crime, and daily neglect. The latter is what I have explored in this piece, calling the reader’s attention to how our discipline has affected heritage’s categories of (in)significance. We have seen how art history’s traditional value system, caught in a co-constitutive process with the Questione Meridionale, has contributed to the disparities in Italy’s heritage, both in terms of the sites prioritised for protection and in lack of funding.

I want to conclude, however, with the question of the ‘feedback loop’ with which I started. If we accept, as I have argued, that there is a direct connection – if not an equation – between scholarly and physical neglect, then this raises further questions for ethical ways forward for the discipline. In addition to the important and noteworthy points raised by scholars in Art History, we should also recognise our impact in relation to the built environment and, with it, the communities that live there.[58] We should acknowledge that our work, no matter how abstract, affects not just what we study, but also what we do not. Long-term scholarly neglect may bring about physical neglect, hindering our possibility of righting the wrong in the future. The question, then, becomes about how to ethically practice art history keeping in mind our impact on a broad range of issues, from the art market to heritage, from international to local politics.



For the many illuminating conversations on Italy’s south, I thank Chiara Capulli in particular. This article would not have come into being without her expertise and perspective on heritage protection in L’Aquila and the Abruzzo in the aftermath of the 2009 earthquake. Many parts of this article bloomed from conversations with Tanvir Ahmed and Carolina Mendoza, who pushed me to understand the issue in a broader system of global colonial dynamics. Thank you to the two anonymous reviewers, whose comments helped me bring out the focus of this article; Giulia Morale, whose help with the editing was indispensable; and Bella Radenović, for always being receptive to my ideas, and encouraging me to share them.


  1. Stefan Tarnowski, ‘Confirming the Already Confirmed’, The London Review of Books, (Published 10 February 2021, Last accessed: 8 March 2021;
  2. See: Catherine Grant and Dorothy Price, ‘Decolonizing Art History’, Art History 45 (2020): 8–66.
  3. See: Tracy Ireland, Steve Brown, and John Schofield, ‘Introduction: (In)Significance – Values and Valuing in Heritage’, International Journal of Heritage Studies 26/9 (2020): 823–25; Christina Cameron, ‘The UNESCO Imprimatur: Creating Global (in)Significance’, International Journal of Heritage Studies 26/ 9 (2020): 845–856.
  4. Grant and Price, 8–66.
  5. Jill Burke in Grant and Price, 18.
  6. ‘The Republic promotes the development of culture […] Protects the landscape and the historic and artistic heritage of the Nation.’ (Article 9). Claudio Fogu, The Fishing Net and the Spider Web. Mediterranean Imaginaries and the Making of Italians. (London: Palgrave, 2020), 12.
  7. ‘Southern Italy’ includes Abruzzo, Basilicata, Calabria, Campania, Molise, Puglia, Sardinia and Sicily; these regions belonged to the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies at the time of Unification (1861).
  8. See: Antonio Gramsci, ‘The Southern Question (1926)’, in Selections from Political Writings (1921-1926) (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1978), 441–462; Franco Cassano, Southern Thought and Other Essays on the Mediterranean, trans. Norma Bouchard and Valerio Ferme (New York: Fordham University Press, 2012). Jill Caskey, Art and Patronage in the Medieval Mediterranean: Merchant Culture in the Region of Amalfi (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004) argues that the Southern Question underpins art history.
  9. Fogu, 5.
  10. Cristina Lombardi-Diop and Caterina Romeo, ‘Italy’s Postcolonial “Question”: Views from the Southern Frontier of Europe’, Postcolonial Studies18/4 (2015): 367–383
  11. China has 55 sites, but ‘only’ 37 are cultural. Spain has 48, of which 42 cultural.
  12. The selection criteria are inherently problematic, as sites have to ‘represent a masterpiece of human creative genius,’ be an ‘exceptional testimony’ of a cultural tradition or lost civilisation, and/or ‘be an outstanding example’ of a type of building or artwork: ‘Selection criteria’, UNESCO, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 17 June 2021,
  13. A partial list includes Maria Andaloro, Gioia Bertelli, Nicolas Boch, Jill Caskey, Bianca de Divitiis, Cathleen Fleck, Jeremy Johns, Ruggero Longo, Tanja Michalsky, Linda Safran, Elisabetta Scirocco, William Tronzo, Nino Zchomelidse, and countless others.
  14. ’18th-Century Royal Palace at Caserta with the Park, the Aqueduct of Vanvitelli, and the San Leucio Complex’, Unesco, (Published: n.d., Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  15. ‘Castel del Monte’, Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  16. ‘Costiera Amalfitana’, Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  17. Ibid.
  18. Ibid.
  19. ‘The trulli of Alberobello’, Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  20. Ibid.
  21. ‘The Sassi and the Park of the Rupestrian Churches of Matera,’ Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  22. ‘Church and Dominican Convent of Santa Maria delle Grazie with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci’, Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  23. ‘Piazza del Duomo, Pisa,’ Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021, For a critique of identifying 14th-century Tuscany with mercantile spirit and modernity, Caskey (2004), 15.
  24. ‘Historic City Centre of Florence’, Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  25. ‘Venice and its Lagoon,’, Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  26. ‘Historic Centre of Rome, the Properties of the Holy See in that City Enjoying Extraterritorial Rights and San Paolo Fuori le Mura,’ Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  27. ‘Historic Centre of Naples’, Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  28. Nicole Riesenberger, King of the Renaissance: Art and Politics at the Neapolitan Court of Ferrante I, 1458-1494, (PhD dissertation, University of Maryland, 2016), 2.
  29. One on Francesco Laurana, the other on Filippo Strozzi between Florence and Naples.
  30. Emanuele Lugli in Grant and Price, 38-39.
  31. There are multiple structural reasons for this; the majority of which no curator can fix.
  32. Émile Bertaux, L’Art Dans lItalie Méridionale: De La Fin de l’Empire Romain à La Conquête de Charles d’Anjou (Paris: A. Fourtemoing, 1903).
  33. Caskey 1-23.
  34. Linda Safran, The Medieval Salento: Art and Identity in Southern Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014).
  35. Bertaux, vol. 1, 388.
  36. Ibid. 390. See Paul Arthur’s lecture ‘Searching for Identity: Byzantine Southern Italy,’ British School at Rome, 2 December 2020. Last accessed: 17 June 2021,
  37. Irene Santori, I trulli di Alberobello, (Roma: Libreria dello Stato, 2003).
  38. The railroad to Basilicata (where the book is set) started in Eboli.
  39. Lindsay R. Harris, Matera Imagined = Matera Immaginata: Photography and a Southern Italian Town (New York, Rome: American Academy in Rome, 2017).
  40. Bertaux Vol. 2, 719-752.
  41. Massimiliano Ambruoso, Castel del Monte: la storia e il mito, Mediterranea (Bari: Edipuglia, 2018).
  42. ‘Castel del Monte.’ Ambruoso notes that esoteric scholarship often has far-right overtones, 212-219.
  43. Irene Santori, Castel del Monte, (Roma: Libreria dello Stato, 2004).
  44. Fallacara and Occhinegro.
  45. Caskey 60
  46. Adolfo Venturi, Storia dell’arte italiana, vol 3, (Rome, 1904) 510.
  47. Fogu 55-57.
  48. ‘Longobards in Italy. Places of the Power (568-774 A.D.),’ Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  49. ‘Arab-Norman Palermo and the Cathedral Churches of Cefalú and Monreale’, Unesco, (Published: n.d. Last accessed: 12 March 2021,
  50. Vincenzo Scalia, ‘The Production of the Mafioso Space. A Spatial Analysis of the Sack of Palermo’, Trends in Organized Crime 24/2 (2021): 189–208,
  51. Linda Safran, ‘Betwixt or beyond? The Salento in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Centuries’, in M. Brownlee and D.H. Gondicas (ed.), Renaissance Encounters: Greek East and Latin West, (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 115–144, 137
  52. Roberto Saviano and Lorenzo Tondo, ‘Buried in concrete: how the mafia made a killing from the destruction of Italy’s south’, The Guardian, (Published: 25 July 2021. Last accessed: 26 July 2021,
  53. Michael Cole, ‘Toward an Art History of Spanish Italy’, I Tatti Studies 16.1/2 (2013), 37–46, 43.
  54. ‘Fondi ridotti per il museo Mandralisca, Musumeci: “Attenzione del governo è massima”,’ Palermo Today, (Published: 7 December 2019, Last accessed: 18 June 2021,
  55. While closures protect sites, they also complicate efforts to protect them.
  56. Eleni Sikelianos, ‘The question is how to interrogate the remains’ in Anne Waldman and Alura Wright (ed.), Cross Worlds: transcultural poetics, an anthology, (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 2014), 319-320.
  57. Examples include Matthieu Aikins, ‘How One Looted Artefact Tells the Story of Modern Afghanistan’, New York Times, (Published: 4 March 2021, Last accessed: 6 March 2021,, Jenna Scatena, ‘Facebook’s Looted Artefact Problem’, The Atlantic, (Published: 31 July 2020, Last accessed: 8 March 2021,
  58. A project that combines academic enquiry, opening a new heritage site (the Lombard Church of Montecorvino Ravella, Salerno) and working with the local community is ‘Crossroads of Empire,’ led by the University of Salerno and Birmingham. ‘Crossroads of Empires’, University of Birmingham, (Published: n.d., Last accessed: 18 June 2021,