How UNESCO World Heritage Works

Italy has reigned supreme within the UNESCO World Heritage Program and is its undisputed leader

Italy is consistently the leading country in the UNESCO World Heritage Program, so it would be worthwhile to learn a little bit about how the program works.

Italy is a leader in at least two senses. First, it has long held the number one spot among all nations that participate in the program (all but a few that are failed states or otherwise alienated from the international community) in terms of the number of inscribed sites that it can claim, which currently sits at 54, forty-nine cultural and five natural (I’ll delve into this distinction in a later piece). Second, and more important in my opinion, it was the locus of an event that lies at the very heart of the program, namely the flood that struck Firenze in 1966, which threatened an untold number of cultural treasures, rare manuscripts among them, and ignited an international movement to protect, preserve and valorize places, buildings and objects that attest to the highest cultural values of not only a particular nation but of the world at large and of humanity in general.

The books that were damaged and threatened by the flooding of Florentine libraries belonged not just to Florentines, nor solely to Italians, or so the argument went, but to global humanity itself. It was a striking claim, and a contentious one, but it sparked the creation of a hugely successful international program that perhaps more than any other can claim to be truly global. Again, all but the most troubled and troubling of nations participates in the program (including the United States, whose participation has been inconsistent in recent history for political reasons).

The phrase that UNESCO World Heritage uses to describe properties that it has inscribed onto its list is “outstanding universal value”. To assess this value, the program uses ten selection criteria that aim to individuate how a particular building, place or landscape represents the values of not just an individual nation but of the world at large. Formulating a conception of value that applies to all people of the world was no small feat and it is a topic that is prone to debate and discussion. At the core of the problem is one essential question: What does it mean to be a human being?

What makes the UNESCO World Heritage Program more than just a philosophical project, however, is its remit and mandate to materialize this philosophical discussion and assessment in the form of inscribed properties: real buildings, real places and real landscapes (a more detailed discussion of the typology of properties will have to wait for another time). This is why the program is so appealing and exciting, because human beings and nature itself have produced a startling array of fascinating buildings, places and landscapes, and by all current measures, no nation is the home to more of these than Italy, il bel paese.

The first cut in judging the worthiness of a property comes in a dynamic pairing: authenticity and integrity. What UNESCO World Heritage means when it speaks of authenticity is to what extent the current structure exhibits its original material form. One may stand before a beautiful stone castle and admire its perfect lines that testify to the cultural values of a particular place and time, but if that castle has been destroyed and rebuilt several times over the course of its existence, the question arises as to how faithfully it has retained its authenticity. Is that stone the same stone that was put in place 700 years ago? Did it perhaps come from the same quarry as the original stones? Is it at least the same type of stone? How was it worked, with modern tools and techniques or with those that were in use during the period in which it first arose? These questions are often difficult to answer but problematic responses do not necessarily disqualify a property. The ultimate decision is inevitably a judgement that is made after much examination, discussion and discernment among the UNESCO World Heritage committee members and the external evaluating bodies that assist them.

The other criterion in the pairing is integrity. A heap of stones may indeed to be authentic in their materiality and placement, but to what extent do they make an entire building? To be inscribable, a building must be not only true in its substance but also complete in its construction, or at least reasonably so. Again, this assessment is always the result of a judgement that must necessarily be somewhat flexible in its application of the selection criteria, because no building or place has remained unscathed or unchanged over the course of its lifetime. Indeed, since change is inevitable, the buffeting of wind and rain, and the effects of use and pollution, all take their toll on the integrity of the original structure, and in fact make authentic contributions to it. This raises the question of when the construction of a building is complete, or at least when its true authentic nature is set and stabilized. Again, it is a always a difficult assessment to make, and in the end a judgement that is somewhat subjective in nature and one that is affected by personal bias and political motive.

Still, I probably make the process seem more fraught than it is, or at least has been. The early Italian inscriptions were easy cases to make: the Historic Centers of Rome and Florence, Venice and its Lagoon, and the Piazza del Duomo, Pisa are immediately identifiable for not only their authenticity and integrity, but also for their “outstanding universal value”. It is striking to look at the original applications for such properties, which are often little more than a page or two of casually composed arguments for inscription. Now that the program has well over 1000 inscribed properties, competition is much fiercer and the candidate properties themselves lie further and further outside of the cultural, historical and political context in which UNESCO World Heritage was first formed. Applications now run over a hundred pages long and are the product of entire committees from the member nation or nations (some properties cross state borders, another feature to be addressed in a future post).

So Italy has reigned supreme within the UNESCO World Heritage Program and is its undisputed leader, in its historical role in shaping global humanity, in its deep and long appreciation for built and natural heritage, and in its expertise and leadership in preserving that heritage, not just at home but throughout the world as well. I recall watching a documentary on the preservation of North America’s only Baroque Church, San Xavier del Bac, which is located in Arizona of all places, dead in the middle of the Sonoran Desert and very close to the US border with Mexico. Something seemed both strange and familiar about the people doing the restoration work. I could not put my finger on it until one definitive clue emerged. It was break time and plunked down amidst the paint and plaster was a Bialetti Moka Express, an object that possesses “outstanding universal value” if anything does. Ahh… Italians.