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Italy may be moving out of recession, but it still has some belt-tightening to do. And when it comes to the country's rich artistic heritage, officials face some impossible choices: Which treasures to rescue when they can't afford to save them all. Well, now thanks to an online vote, Italian citizens get a stake in those decisions. For some works of art, that will mean a new lease on life. But as Christopher Livesay reports, many treasures of Western civilization remain in serious danger.

CHRISTOPHER LIVESAY, BYLINE: On a recent night inside the National Museum of Rome, musicians and conceptual artists perform a piece of avant-garde theatre as sculptures of Apollo and Dionysus look on.

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LIVESAY: The after-hours event is one of dozens taking place at state museums and monuments nationwide in a program called Art Helping Art. The idea is to raise awareness and money for those artistic treasures that need restoration, something the culture ministry says has become a Sisyphean task amid the euro crisis. Anna Maria Buzzi is in charge of protecting and promoting Italy's artistic heritage.

ANNA MARIA BUZZI: (Though Translator) Italy needs help restoring its art and monuments. Ticket sales alone are not enough to completely fund their upkeep. We don't even have a full understanding of how much art exists in the country. We have to start somewhere, so we came up with Art Helping Art.

LIVESAY: Here's how it works: The government selected eight pieces of art from across Italy deemed to be in need of repair, ranging from an ancient Roman marble horse to a painting by Renaissance master Perugino. Then, it posted pictures of them on Facebook and asked people to vote for the work they felt was most deserving of a fix-up. The work that draws the most clicks wins the money raised at these late-night events.

BUZZI: (Through Translator) The strength of a democratic institution is listening to its citizens. Giving people the right to choose makes them more invested in their own heritage. It makes them care more. If you give the people more responsibility, they're more likely to take an interest in their own culture.

LIVESAY: Sounds reasonable.

GABRIELE CIFANI: It's very, extremely demagogic.

LIVESAY: Gabriele Cifani is a Rome archeologist. Just outside the Colosseum, which is being restored by a private investor right now, he takes me on a short walk to show me what he calls one of Italy's many scandals. He tells me to keep an eye on my recording equipment.

CIFANI: Don't show too much, all right, of that.

LIVESAY: Don't show too much, what?

CIFANI: Your stuff.

LIVESAY: Oh. Why do you say that?

CIFANI: You will discover.

LIVESAY: We enter the ruins of Domus Aurea, the once opulent golden house built by Emperor Nero in the first century AD. Broken wine bottles litter the ground in what's become an unauthorized camp for scores of the city's homeless.

CIFANI: We are inside an area for homeless, definitely. It's just completely abandoned. You can't bring here people because it's a dangerous area above all when it's dark.

LIVESAY: So does it make you angry? Would you use the word angry?

CIFANI: Yes, yes, yes, yes. I would say angry. Yes.

LIVESAY: Critics point out that countries like France and Germany spend billions more than Italy maintaining their cultural heritage. Out of the entire European Union, only Greece devotes a smaller percentage of its national budget to the arts. Luca Carra is with Italia Nostra, Italy's oldest non-government historic preservation group.

LUCA CARRA: Italy is committing cultural suicide. We have to - we have no much time. We have some years to stop the degradation because every time it rains, for instance, some roof or walls or some part of these monuments fall down, fall apart. And so I think it's a sort of a national emergency. It's a cultural emergency, but it's more than a cultural emergency.

LIVESAY: Even Pompeii - the country's prize pony of archeology - suffers routine collapses, as do countless other lesser-known sites. But the government is optimistic. The late-night fundraisers have been a big hit.

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LIVESAY: And so was the online vote, which closed at the end of the year. The winner is Perugino's painting of a Madonna and child. As for the seven other objects, the government says it will fix them soon. But Italy's revolving door of politicians have made similar promises in the past. And there are no firm plans to take another roster of candidates for restoration to Italian voters. For NPR News, I'm Christopher Livesay in Rome.

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