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SIENA, THE CRISIS OF THE WORLD'S OLDEST BANK AND ITS CITY

Piazza Salimbeni in Siena, HQ of Monte dei Paschi bank
Piazza Salimbeni in Siena, HQ of the world's oldest bank

The Power of We is the topic of this year's Blog Action Day. A thought provoking theme for a city like Siena, where anything social, cultural or environmental doesn't depend on people power, but on the power of a bank. 

Monte dei Paschi di Siena has been banking since 1472. It goes without saying, a money institute with that kind of pedigree, would have played a major role in any city, whether in Italy or not. Nevertheless I still keep being amazed about the amount of power the world's oldest bank executes over Siena and great parts of Tuscany. 

Last year a colleague and I started work on a post-cancer retreat in Southern Tuscany. The issue of funding came up quite early. Without financial support a lot of cancer survivors wouldn't be able to participate. Who could help? "Il Monte!"was the answer I got from people all around Tuscany. "Just ask Il Monte!" For decades (if not centuries) the Monte dei Paschi bank (and since 1995 the MPS foundation) had supported generously more or less every project that came their way. 

Last year the Palazzo Strozzi museum in Florence hold an exhibition called Money and Beauty. Bankers, Botticelli and the Bonfire of the Vanities. In short an exhibition focusing on the tight link between Renaissance art and banking. Obviously, this is no issue of the past. Nowhere else can the connection between art, culture and banking be better observed than in Siena and Tuscany's south. Visit an exhibition, check the sponsors of a concert or read about the funding of the renovation of a Renaissance palace. Research in biomedicine as much as old people's homes and Etruscan museums thrive thanks to the support of MPS. Or thrived. 


Palazzo Strozzi museum in Florence
Palazzo Strozzi museum in Florence

Nothing is eternal. Not even in the Gothic city. More than 500 years of experience didn't prevent Italy's third biggest bank from hitting the global banking crisis full frontal. Tuscany's sugar daddy swiftly turned from eternal provider into a member of the long list of Italian businesses needing serious restructuring. As a result, 400 branches of the bank will be closed down and by the year 2015, 4600 employees will have lost their jobs. 

With Il Monte no longer able to deliver the kind of support it did in the past, and governmental subsidies drying up swiftly, where to turn? As a rule of thumb, it's always a good idea to learn from our mistakes. First of all how did we end up here? It's not about blaming anybody. I'd have been the first one to take MPS's money and run (if only there still had been any a year ago!). However, it is becoming painfully obvious that relying on only one source of financial support is no clever idea.

Diversify is on of the fashionable terms in many sectors these days, be it economy, farming or couple therapy. Depending on one, or - counting in state funds - two big money givers doesn't make sense. At least not anymore. 

Il Fienile; room at Siena's Santa Maria della Scala museum, exhibiting works from della Quercia's Gaia fountain
Il Fienile
 one of Santa Maria della Scala's many stunning rooms 

Sadly, a perfect example for this is Siena's Santa Maria della Scala museum. The biggest, youngest and probably most ambitious museum project in Siena is close to default. Whilst the museum is owned by the city of Siena, the project only ever got going because of the 17 million Euro MPS made availabe for it. Now that funds have dried up, the city is frenetically looking for new investors. Judging from reports in the local newspaper, the question of funding is handed from politicians to museum specialists and back. But in the meantime, the public and museum staff may have to start taking things into their own hands. 

I'm not being naive. A project like the SMS needs major funds, but before having to close doors, let's toss around a few ideas. Thinking about the museum's possible assets, why not rent out one or two of its many spaces for wedding ceremonies and meetings? This may sound blasphemous, but considering that the SMS museum complex is spread out over 40.000 square meters, it's at least an option worth pondering. Or coming to think of it, why is there no museum cafe with tables right on Siena's piazza del Duomo? I may not be the marrying kind, but I'd love to read my Saturday paper in the shade of Siena's old and new (albeit never finished) cathedral. And I'm sure I wouldn't be on my own. 

It's time to stir things up a little. A first move into the right direction has been done by Siena's tourist guide association by offering free guided visits to the museum. Getting the population to know and appreciate the SMS museum complex is the best base to get people involved. 

In the immediate future Italian government institutions and many of the country's businesses are not going to be in a position to further foster socio-cultural projects. But whilst the big players have run aground, the ship crews are still alive and kicking. And where there are people there are ideas. Not all of them may be feasible, but all of them are worth considering.  

A good place to keep this conservation going is coming up next November, when Florence is going to host the second International Week of Cultural and Environmental Heritage (from November 3-11). For the exact program and an overview of all the inspiring speakers, check out the Florens Foundation website: Florens 2012

Resources: 
- In case you'd like to know more about the Monte dei Paschi bank's financial fiasco, read on in the Telegraph (article from September 2012). 
- An interesting review of Palazzo Strozzi's Renaissance art and banking exhibition can be found on Florentine blog Arttrav


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