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Through much of its history, Italy was Europe’s heart of the arts, an artistic playground for foreign elites and powers who bought, sold, and sometimes plundered countless artworks and antiquities. This loss of artifacts looted by other nations once put Italy at an economic and political disadvantage compared with northern European states. Now, more than any other country, Italy asserts control over its cultural heritage through a famously effective art-crime squad that has been the inspiration of novels, movies, and tv shows. In its efforts to bring their cultural artifacts home, Italy has entered into legal battles against some of the world’s major museums, including the Getty, New York’s Metropolitan Museum, and the Louvre. It has turned heritage into patrimony capital—a powerful and controversial convergence of art, money, and politics. In 2006, the then-president of Italy declared his country to be “the world’s greatest cultural power.” With Ruling Culture, Fiona Greenland traces how Italy came to wield such extensive legal authority, global power, and cultural influence—from the nineteenth century unification of Italy and the passage of novel heritage laws, to current battles with the international art market. Today, Italy’s belief in its cultural superiority is evident through interactions between citizens, material culture, and the state—crystallized in the Art Squad, the highly visible military-police art protection unit. Greenland reveals the contemporary actors in this tale, taking a close look at the Art Squad and state archaeologists on one side and unauthorized excavators, thieves, and smugglers on the other. Drawing on years in Italy interviewing key figures and following leads, Greenland presents a multifaceted story of art crime, cultural diplomacy, and struggles between international powers.
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