It would be hard to imagine a bigger confluence of luxe brands assembling to help preserve Italy’s cultural treasures. First there was the fashion house Fendi, personified for the occasion by its creative director, Karl Lagerfeld, dressed in a high-collared shirt, dark glasses, and fingerless lace gloves. Then there was the city of Rome, represented not so much by its mayor—though he too was in attendance at the Jan. 28 ceremony—as by one of its most famous symbols: the 17th century Trevi Fountain, featuring horn-blowing mermen, heaving hippocampi, and the water god Oceanus astride a seashell chariot.
In an era of European austerity, the Italian government has declared itself all but unable to take care of even its most iconic monuments. When a chunk of the fountain’s ornate sculpting fell off last summer, Rome appealed for help. Last week, Fendi answered that call. “The Fountain of Trevi is the symbol of Rome,” says Lagerfeld. Over the next two years, Fendi will spend $2.9 million to completely overhaul the fountain, cleaning the statues and fixing cracks in the marble. “With this crisis, I think the city of Rome has other priorities to spend its money,” notes Lagerfeld.
With funding for the maintenance of Italy’s archaeological riches slashed by 20 percent since 2010, the Trevi Fountain isn’t the only historic monument that will need private donors’ help. Italian apparel maker Diesel is spending €5 million ($6.7 million) to restore Venice’s weathered Rialto Bridge, the oldest spanning the Grand Canal. In Rome, luxury shoemaker Tod’s Group has pledged €25 million to restore the Coliseum. “Without patrons [for preservation], we won’t manage in Italy, and maybe not in Europe,” explains Rome Mayor Gianni Alemanno, who also is seeking private sponsors to restore the long-neglected tomb of the Emperor Augustus.
What the biggest donors have in common is a stake in maintaining Italy’s glamorous image. And it’s not a coincidence that the monuments chosen for rescue by these luxury retailers are among the country’s best-known. For Fendi, the Trevi Fountain was a natural fit. The company, now owned by LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton (MC:FP), was founded in 1925 in a small fur workshop and bag store less than a 10-minute walk from the monument. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Fendi family even produced a film and a book on the fountains of Rome. Silvia Venturini Fendi, granddaughter of the founders, says the city’s mix of classical and baroque architecture provided her with ideas for the company’s famed Baguette handbag, which retails for up to $6,220. “Rome is the perfect place for a designer to get inspiration,” she says. “It’s like walking in an open-air museum.”
Unlike Tod’s, which in exchange for its contribution will gain the right to place its logo on Coliseum tickets, Fendi will receive nothing for its donation, except a 30-by-40-cm (roughly 12-by-16-inch) plaque, to be fixed to the side of the fountain for three years. But the company’s intervention has already gained it publicity money can’t buy: headlines around the world accompanied by a sultry picture of Anita Ekberg, cavorting in the fountain in full evening dress in a scene from Federico Fellini’s 1960 film La Dolce Vita. “Rome is the symbol, let’s say the quintessence of the Italian style, of the dolce vita, of the Italian savoir-faire,” says Fendi Chief Executive Officer Pietro Beccari. “It’s really important for Fendi to restate its Italian origins.”
Not long ago, such reliance on filthy lucre might have outraged Italy’s cultural purists. These days there’s widespread recognition that the country is in no position to protest. “From the technical and ethical points of view, I have no objections at all,” says Michele Trimarchi, a professor of cultural economics at the University of Bologna. “Money accrued to culture is only positive.”
Still, for every Trevi Fountain or Rialto Bridge, Italy has thousands of lesser attractions equally at risk of crumbling, and their prospects remain uncertain. “On the one hand, the state accepts money [for preservation], and that’s all,” says Trimarchi. “On the other hand, private companies give money to iconic monuments, and that’s all. There’s no larger plan.”