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Like its debt-burdened neighbors, Italy is struggling to pay back its two-and-a-half-trillion-dollar debt through relentless belt-tightening. The budgets of state-run museums, ancient archaeological sites and libraries are among the hardest hit. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli reports on one artist's fiery protest to draw attention to the impact all these cutbacks are having on the arts.

SYLVIA POGGIOLI, BYLINE: Casoria is a small town in the Naples hinterland known mostly as a hotbed of the Camorra, the local mafia. It was there in mid-April that Antonio Manfredi, director of the Casoria Contemporary Art Museum or CAM, launched his challenge to the art world and the Italian Ministry of Culture.

ANTONIO MANFREDI: This is war for the art, so this, I think, is really art revolution. We want the institution in Italy, in Europe and around the world understand that the culture is very important, and it's not possible that when there is economic problem in the world, the first that the government destroy is the art.

POGGIOLI: Manfredi's art war consists in setting works of art on fire to protest cuts to Italy's arts budget. The CAM has about 1,000 exhibits, and Manfredi has pledged to incinerate two to three artworks a week. He first started with his own pieces, and then with the artists' permission, he burned works by others.

MANFREDI: When I burn one artwork, I feel very, very bad because each one piece in this museum is one part of my life, is one part of the life of the artists. But when the revolution is possible only with the burning action, we destroy some art for saving all art.

POGGIOLI: So far, no official reaction. But Manfredi's bonfires sent sparks around Europe, igniting solidarity and similar protests in artist colonies in Germany, Wales and England.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO)

POGGIOLI: Here's a video shot by artists at AirSpace Gallery Studios in Stoke-on-Kent as they dropped canvases into a crackling fire.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: We are standing in solidarity with Antonio Manfredi in protest against cuts to the arts.

POGGIOLI: But here in Italy, Manfredi got little media coverage, and some art critics dismissed him as an adolescent exhibitionist.

ANNA MATTIROLO: (Through Translator) It's such an extreme gesture. The idea of setting a work of art on fire gives me goose bumps.

POGGIOLI: Anna Mattirolo is the art director of Rome's MAXXI Contemporary Art Museum.

MATTIROLO: (Through Translator) But there's no question about it. Arts funding cutbacks have been devastating.

POGGIOLI: Over the past two years, Italian government spending on the arts has been slashed by some 76 percent, and many museums are forced to cancel long-planned exhibits and exchanges. Mario Resca, who heads the Culture Ministry's department of arts promotion, points out that despite the recession, when people don't have money to buy gasoline, the number of visitors to museums and archaeological site is actually growing. He quotes the Greek philosopher Aristotle.

MARIO RESCA: He said that during successful period, culture was an ornament. In bad periods, culture is a big shelter. Maybe it's a way to get back to earth, you know? Maybe new energy, new ways of thinking, new values would come out.

POGGIOLI: But thus far, the government has remained silent. Despite its huge art heritage from ancient Greek and Roman sites through the Middle Ages, the Renaissance and the Baroque period, Italy has traditionally spurned investing in the arts, barely 3/10 of 1 percent of GDP, one-fourth of what's spent on the arts by France, England and Germany. Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News, Rome.

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