IT HAS been described as the world’s largest open-air museum, packed with fine statues and important archaeological sites.
But Italy’s rich heritage is under attack as never before from vandals and professional thieves.
In a series of incidents in the past four weeks in Venice and Rome, hammers have been used to smash statues and fountains.
In some cases, the heads of Roman statues more than 2,000 years old have been cleanly cut away using powerful circular saws, more than likely by professional thieves working to order.
Authorities are so worried by the problem that they have assigned police to guard key sites and have even set up webcams to watch over suspected targets.
But the cultural carnage continues unabated.
Earlier this week the 360-year-old Fontana delle Api (Fountain of Bees) by the Renaissance master Gianlorenzo Bernini was targeted by vandals at the bottom end of the famous Via Veneto in central Rome.
The fountain, commissioned by Pope Urban VIII, features a large shell and three bees, the symbol of the pontiff’s famous family, the Barberinis.
Police say a hammer was used to smash away at the bees decorating the water feature and as yet they have few leads as to the culprits because no witnesses have come forward.
In another attack, vandals chipped hands, faces, feet and arms from statues in the area around Piazza del Popolo, including one dating back to ancient Rome.
Tourists strolling in the famous Villa Borghese in central Rome cannot help but notice the number of headless statues now dotted around the gardens.
The attacks began last month in Venice after a man took a hammer to several important monuments.
Antonio Benacchio, 38, a Venetian with a history of psychological problems, was caught three days into his rampage against five of the city’s sites.
Benacchio wreaked most damage on important features on the front of the Doges’ Palace and two small statues on the front of the Chiesa del Redentore.
In all cases, he hacked hands off religious figures: those of God and Moses on the Doges’ Palace and those of St Francis and St Mark on the church.
Police said he would probably have done more damage to the Ducal Palace if he had not been chased off by tourists.
A search of Benacchio’s flat revealed he had made off with fragments from the sculptures, which the city’s stoneworkers have offered to repair for free.
Yesterday, in an interview with The Scotsman, Roberto di Paola, the superintendent at the Works of Art in Rome section of the culture ministry, said: "We are faced with a problem that has become particularly acute this summer. As a result we are now working with the police to increase security at artistic sites not just in Rome but across the whole of Italy.
"However the sheer fact that Italy is one giant open-air museum makes this very difficult and we cannot have a policeman or security guard at every statue or fountain because it would just not be possible.
"Webcams are being introduced at various sites and we are also working with the police in making greater use of the security cameras that are already installed across cities, especially ones that monitor traffic.
"I think the problem this summer has been made worse because of the coverage given to the Venice attacks, which has led to copycat incidents."
Jacopo Benci, vice-director of fine art at the British School of Rome, a centre for the study of Italian art, said: "There is no doubt that there needs to be increased vigilance and security.
"The installation of more TV cameras is a solution but Romans and visitors should also take more pride in their heritage and report these things when they see them happening.
"My own theory is that a lot of vandalism, particularly the stealing of heads, from statues is done to order and commissioned by private collectors.
"In other cases it is just sheer wanton damage for the sake of it, and I think that is down to the sheer volume of visitors, both foreign and Italian, that visit our artistic cities - there are bound to be some unruly elements among them."
Mr di Paola noted: "What is also needed is more respect from people. They need to realise that what they are doing is damaging Italy’s heritage - these are national treasures. The damage that is being done can be repaired, but they will never be the same as the original and of course to repair them costs money. For example, the damage done to the Fountain of Bees will cost at least 10,000 [6,600] to repair.
"Personally, I also think that when caught the culprits should be made more an example of and be given long jail sentences so they know the amount of damage they have caused the country’s heritage.’’
Italy has suffered from attacks on its works of art for years, with the most famous incident being in May 1972, when a Hungarian badly disfigured Michelangelo’s Piet in St Peter’s with a hammer.
Lazlo Toth smashed the foot of Christ as he shouted: "I am Jesus Christ" before being dragged away.
In 1991 a failed Italian painter, Pietro Cannata, smashed a toe off Michelangelo’s David.
In 1997, the famous Neptune fountain in Florence and Bernini’s Four Rivers Fountain in Rome were damaged by an over-enthusiastic group of revellers.