Salvatore Settis

Defense of the soil and public interest

Italy can be proud of a tradition of safeguarding the landscape and environment that is the oldest in the world, and was the first to be enshrined in one of the fundamental principles of the State. The culmination, heart and synthesis of this history is in fact Article 9 of the Italian Constitution: "The Republic promotes the development of culture and of scientific and technical research. It safeguards natural landscape and the historical and artistic heritage of the Nation." Among the key characteristics of this apt formulation, I would like to recall just one: the intimate union of landscape and the historic and artistic heritage, a recurrent feature of the nation's civil and juridical culture, at least since the Order of the Royal Patrimony of Sicily of 21 August 1745, which simultaneously ordered the conservation of the antiquities of Taormina and of the woods on the slopes of Etna.
The national law to safeguard the heritage (1909) was added to in 1921 by the minister Benedetto Croce, who introduced the first law to protect the landscape. These two laws were then rewritten under Fascism by the minister Giuseppe Bottai, and approved in two parts in June 1939, fully in line with the norms of liberal Italy, and with the collaboration of leading intellectuals such as Giulio Carlo Argan and Santi Romano. There was nothing specifically Fascist about the Bottai laws: in fact, as Sabino Cassese has written, Article 9 of the Constitution of a Republic arising from the Resistance can be characterized as the constitutionalization of the Bottai laws.

The laws currently in force continue along this line. This is the case above all of the Cultural Heritage and Natural Landscape Code, passed in 2004 (under the minister Urbani), and reaffirmed in a markedly bipartisan way in 2006 (minister Buttiglione) and 2008 (minister Rutelli). We can thus say that the legal tradition of protection represents a line of continuity that started with liberal Italy, ran through the Fascist period, was affirmed in the Constitution and has continued, crossing political divisions, through to modern-day Italy.
The historic explanation for this continuity lies in a long tradition that dates back to the medieval comuni and then to the pre-Unification States; between them there was not just emulation, but a profound harmony, a common background of civil and juridical values, a bond no less strong and lasting than language, literature and art. Monuments and landscape became figures of citizenship and a principle of emotional identification, which coincided with the very idea of being part of a well-governed community. We can see it in Lorenzetti's Good Government in the Palazzo Pubblico of Siena, we can read it in the Costituto del Comune di Siena (1309), according to which "he who governs the city must first of all ensure its beauty and embellishment, essential for the pleasure and delight of outsiders, but also for the honour and prosperity of the Sienese."
The principle inspiring this norm, and of many other similar ones, was the primacy of the public good over private profit, the notion of the common good or publica utilitas, which was rightly traced back to Roman law. To cite just one example here, in the Apostolic Constitution Quae publice utilia et decora, Gregory XIII (1574) proclaimed the absolute priority of the public good and decorum over the cupiditates and commoda (interests, profits) of private parties, and subjected the building activities of the latter to rigorous control.
The same spirit can obviously be found in Article 9 of the Constitution, where the notion of the environment is lacking, not yet having been formulated in the years of the Constituent Assembly. However, the Constitutional Court, with an imposing piece of work, affirmed that the safeguarding of the environment is a primary constitutional value (and as such is superordinate to every private interest) by virtue of the multiplicative combination of article 9 and of article 32, which concerns the safeguarding of health as a fundamental right of the individual and as a collective interest – a highly effective example of how farsighted the Italian Constitution was and continues to be.

In the Italian conception of safeguarding embodied in the Constitution, the protection of the historic and artistic heritage, of the landscape and of the environment are one and the same. And so it is all the more painful to have to observe that this high and noble principle is violated every day; we must therefore feel obliged to call attention more often to its historic roots, the ethical significance and the need to plan the future of the nation. Today more than ever before it is necessary to call upon Italians to respect their tradition and their homeland: and indeed as a manifesto of a new policy one might cite Luigi Einaudi, who, in 1951, as President of the Republic, wrote: "The struggle against the destruction of Italian soil will be long and hard, and will perhaps last for centuries. But it is today's greatest task if we wish to save the soil on which Italians live."
The carefully chosen and concrete use of the word soil avoids the dichotomies and ambiguities of other terms like territory or landscape, and indicates the path to take: to return to the full concreteness of a landscape that is not aesthetic (to look at), but ethical (to live on: precisely the soil on which Italians live), and to recognize in it, in a complete fusion with the idea of the environment, the primary source of our health, of body and of mind. Inversely, just as we recognize the source of physical illnesses in environmental pollution, so too must we be capable of recognizing the roots of disorders and ailments of the mind in the devastation of the landscape. Defending the soil of Italy must therefore be a collective commitment for the legitimate defence of the public interest, that is, of citizens.

It is ever more clear that in Italy, as in the rest of the world, nothing preserves the landscape and environment as much as quality agriculture. A vast proportion of the nation's territory is agrarian landscape, marked by a millenary peasant farming culture, which is interwoven inextricably with the culture of the elites: the landscape shaped by hand and spade is the same one that has been praised by poets, represented by painters, extolled by visitors on the Grand Tour. The intimate fusion of landscape and the historic and artistic heritage has, precisely in the agricultural use of land, its specific point of suture, in a harmonious equilibrium that made Italy the garden of Europe and which the building speculation and unbridled cementification of recent decades has besmirched and devastated. Only rarely is it considered that the patchy urban development, now customarily referred to as urban sprawl, takes place almost invariably at the expense of farmland of exceptional fertility: this is the case of a Campania that was once felix, namely, fruitful; such is the case of the plain of Lombardy and Veneto, now invaded by warehouses.
The constitutionally guaranteed link between landscape and environment exalts and reflects the link between health and beauty. An adequately safeguarded land, also in terms of the values of civilization belonging to the agricultural tradition of the country, also involves the production of healthy food, sufficient to nourish citizens but also up to the standard of Italian cuisine. It should also involve a policy of effective intervention, both curative and preventive, against the fragility of Italy's coasts and islands, against the widespread risk posed by seismic events. The priority given to the conservation and promotion of agrarian landscapes could have, in a context such as this, a very high value: it may in fact embody not only respect for our forefathers, for the law and for the Constitution; but also an increasingly urgent ethical principle, respect for the rights of future generations, to whom we cannot leave a blighted landscape.
No one has grasped the link between the destruction of the landscape and violence against memory as clearly as Andrea Zanzotto, who has written very effectively and incisively about this: "A beautiful landscape, once destroyed, never returns, and if during the war there were extermination camps, we are now at the point of exterminating fields: facts which, while apparently far removed, depend however on the same mentality." The violence committed against the countryside, Zanzotto suggests, is opposite yet identical to war, to the violence of humans against humans: like the war, it expresses energy and vitality, but it does so at the expense of others, and in particular of future generations. In the name of an endless growth in construction, the effects of a centuries-long development are cancelled out, provoking new destruction in a growing delusion of omnipotence that rides roughshod over and devours what should be perpetual. This degradation of civilization is self-justified in the name of life, but it takes place under the sign of death. From Zanzotto we should learn to react, like him, with the indignation of the just.

The Italian Constitution offers the loftiest framework of reference for a new project to safeguard the country's soil and its agricultural landscapes. Landscape, environment, agriculture and art form an inseparable whole, from which to set out once again not to deny its aesthetic values, but to place them in the frame of a vital ethical conception of the primary and absolute constitutional value of protection, which, according to the Constitutional Court, entails the strong tie between the safeguarding of the landscape and the safeguarding of the physical and mental health of citizens. Now really is the moment to create antibodies, remodelling abandoned buildings, developing new strategies for recovering land and managing it virtuously, vigorous boosting quality agriculture, also in the name of good food and of wellbeing. All these are themes which can and must create employment, tying together once again the threads of our civil tradition: in the name of health, of quality of life, of the happiness of individuals and of communities, of economic equilibrium and of the productivity of the nation. In the name, in short, of our common good and that of future generations.

Salvatore Settis has been Director of the Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles (1994 - 1999) and of the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa (1999 - 2010), where he also taught Classical Archaeology and Art History. He has been Visiting Professor in several universities in the U.S., France, Germany, UK, and other EU countries; moreover, he has been Warburg Professor at the University of Hamburg, and delivered the Isaiah Berlin Lectures at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the Mellon Lectures at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, and the Lectures of the Cátedra del Museo del Prado in Madrid. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, of the Accademia Nazionale dei Lincei, Rome, of the Institut de France, of the American Philosophical Association, Philadelphia, of the Istituto Veneto, and of the Academies of Sciences in Berlin, Munich, Brussells, and Turin. He currently chairs the Scientific Council of the Musée du Louvre in Paris.

1 Translator's note: Zanzotto plays on the dual meaning of the Italian word campo, meaning camp but also field.