Two thousand years after gladiators engaged in mortal combat on the blood-soaked sands of the Colosseum, a battle of a rather more bureaucratic nature has broken out over a £21 million plan to restore Italy’s most recognisable monument.
Diego Della Valle, the wealthy owner of Tod’s luxury shoemakers, signed an accord with Rome city council last year to foot the bill to spruce up and restore the facade of the giant amphitheatre, in return for promotion opportunities.
But he has threatened to pull out of the arrangement after it became bogged down by allegations of impropriety, favouritism and a lack of transparency.
Accusations were levelled this week that proper procedures were not followed when the job was put out to public tender.
The deal is being investigated by Italy’s anti-trust body and prosecutors in Rome and has also been criticised by a consumer group and a trade union.
Mr Della Valle said on Thursday that he was so fed up with the wrangling that he was ready to pull out of his commitment.
He was dissuaded from doing so by Lorenzo Ornaghi, Italy’s culture minister, who asked him to wait until the investigation runs its course.
“If somebody can do better than us, he’s welcome,” the founder of Tod’s told a press conference in Rome. “We are available only if the operation is crystal clear and as long as it’s done quickly, otherwise we will step aside.”
The contract would give Tod’s the rights to use the Colosseum’s logo for 15 years and to put its own brand on tickets bought by the six million tourists who pay to see the monument each year.
But the company has repeatedly insisted that it would not plaster the exterior of the monument with unsightly advertising hoardings.
The agreement signed with Tod’s was hailed as a blueprint for how Italy could finance the upkeep of its treasure trove of Roman remains and other historic monuments, but has been controversial from the start.
The right to use the Colosseum logo is opposed by consumer groups and UIL, Italy’s third-biggest union, traditionally a bastion of Socialists.
The economic crisis, and Italy’s huge 1.9 trillion euro public debt, compelled first the government of Silvio Berlusconi and now that of his successor, Mario Monti, to seek help from the private sector in managing the country’s heritage.
The need for a comprehensive restoration of the Colosseum has been underlined in the last few months by chunks of masonry and stone falling from the arena.
The two-year restoration was due to begin in March but may now be held up by the investigation.
Gianni Alemanno has called the wrangling over the deal “madness”, saying it was drawn up with full transparency and should go ahead as soon as possible.
“Let’s restore the Colosseum. Do you want it to fall to pieces?” he said earlier this month.
“It’s madness having to be stalled for a year when there’s a private businessman giving us 25 million euros for the Colosseum’s restoration and in exchange asking nothing but the privilege of talking about it.”