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Restoring Italy's Lost Luster

Businesses lead drive to renew cultural landmarks. ART AND ARCHITECTURE

THERE is a breeze blowing across Italy that carries with it an insatiable desire to preserve, appreciate, and renew its glorious past of art and architecture. In cities from Venice to Turin, from Florence to Rome, the art of restoration is an actuality - not a far-away dream.

In Venice, the Palazzo Grassi, the 18th-century masterpiece of architect Giorgio Massari, is no longer worn and weary as gondoliers glide by on the Grand Canal. In six years, it has been restored to its original splendor and is becoming a world-class museum.

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Interestingly, it is not the government who is funding such restoration projects, but Italian corporations. The Fiat Group, spearheaded by its chairman Giovanni Agnelli, is gaining the lead in such endeavors.

``Corporations are coming to the aid of historical preservation, since the Italian government is almost immobilized by economics,'' says Paolo Viti, cultural activities director of the Palazzo Grassi.

Italy's ministry of culture was alloted less than 2 percent of the national budget, he says, ``so you can understand its restraint. ... Most corporations value this opportunity to generate a positive presence in a noncommercial venture.'' The Fiat Group bought the Palazzo in 1984 for $6 million and spent $12 million renewing its pristine beauty. ``It was once a palace for a few,'' Mr. Viti says. ``Now it's a museum for the world to appreciate.''

The passion for preservation became world news with the cleaning of the frescos in the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, begun 10 years ago. Today, with the project nearly complete, Michelangelo's artistry thrives with born-again color.

The Olivetti Corporation has funded the restoration of Leonardo da Vinci's ``Last Supper'' in Milan, where cleaning revealed lost features of the original, as well as work on the frescos of Masaccio, Filippino Lippi, and Masolino at the Brancacci Chapel in Florence.

The Italians' urge to restore has even spread to the fountains. In Rome, the famous Trevi is currently undergoing a dramatic cleaning. Even the Pantheon, built by Hadrian, is getting an exterior scrubbing.

At the Palazzo Grassi, recently the setting for the Pritzker Architecture Awards, ``the challenge was to keep the quality alive in its glorious frescos and graceful staircase, and yet to meet the standards of a modern museum,'' such as proper humidity control, says Viti.

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The Guggenheim Museum in New York, closed for 18 months for its own restoration, has loaned its permanent collection to the Palazzo, where the exhibition will open Sept. 7.

In Turin, Fiat is participating in the restoration of the Royal Palace, the Royal Hunting Lodge at Stupinigi, and the Castle of Rivoli. Mario Verdun, Fiat's cultural affairs director for Italy and France, is particularly proud of the progress at the Royal Hunting Lodge, built in 1729. Joining Fiat in the restoration is the Cassa di Risparmio of Turin (a savings bank) and the Mauriziano Order.

``The first stage of the project, one-fifth of the whole complex, was recently completed,'' Mr. Verdun says. ``We've already hosted exhibitions, including 16th- and 17th-century paintings, porcelain, and arms from the Imperial Palace of Shenyang, China.'' Currently under restoration is the grand ballroom and living areas of the lodge.

Restoration is not only for historical palaces, but for landmark work areas. For instance, in 1982, when the Lingotto, once called the largest and most modern car plant in the world, closed its doors, the people of Turin wondered what would happen to the economy and the building.

``When the factory was built in 1920,'' Verdun explained, ``it was the largest assembly line in Europe. Here they made cars, trucks, and plane engines. Its five stories, with a test track on the roof, covered one-third of a mile. Fiat called in 20 architects and city planners asking them to develop a reuse plan for the Lingotto,'' he said. ``Renzo Piano, co-designer of the Pompidou Center in Paris, had a plan: to preserve the original architectural features and develop the former factory ... into a comprehensive culture and technology center.''

It has been estimated that the Lingotto project has already cost over $10 million, with another $300 million still to come. One section has hosted a major art exhibition, ``Russian and Soviet Art: 1870-1930,'' featuring works never before seen outside the Soviet Union.

The major restoration begins in November, with a completion date four years away. It will house the school of science of the University of Turin, a center for international conferences, an exhibition hall, a university research facility, telecommunications centers, enclosed gardens, shops, restaurants, and apartments.

Some observers suggested lighting up the fantastic spiral roadway that goes from the test track on the roof to the street, so that its dramatic shape could be seen for miles.

``The original look will be maintained,'' says a Fiat representative in an interview at the factory. ``The test track and the spiral driveway will be a `cycle track' for walking and bicycling.''

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