August 16, 2017 | Rome, Italy | °C

Broken tour


Siena is among the most popular tourist destinations in Tuscany.
By Matt Baglio
Published: 2004-10-01
T

o understand Max Grossman pay close attention to the words he chooses. He has the assertive confidence of a wronged man. "Early on," he says, reflecting on the prelude to his 39-month legal ordeal, "the guides red-flagged me. They saw me one too many times and targeted me for destruction."

Max Grossman is a 37-year-old doctoral candidate in art history at Columbia University in New York City. He has shifting eyes and a piercing gaze. Almost uniformly, Americans who know him laud his intellect and understanding of Italian art history. Those who find him pushy still acknowledge his hard-earned expertise.

But Americans are not Italians, and Grossman's problems began in the Tuscan city of Siena, renowned for its annual horse race Palio and considered among this country's medieval and Renaissance jewels.


The signs were clear... or are they? Matt Baglio

In January 2001, the Association of Tour Guides (AGT) for the city and province of Siena filed a criminal suit charging Grossman with "practicing as a tour guide without a tour guide license."

According to AGT Siena officials, he showed off the art and architecture of Siena not just to students, but also to "clients," most wooed through a personal website that offered private lessons and seminars. This is a job the tour guides claimed only they are allowed to do.

While the quarrel between Grossman and Siena tour guide officials was personal, a grudge match that hinged in part on Grossman's abrasive character as well as their own, it also underscored a festering rift between Italians licensed to explain their nation's cultural heritage to tourists and foreign nationals who want to do the same kind of work unlicensed and believe they are qualified and entitled to do so.

On another level it highlighted a nagging cultural divide between Italian tour guides, most of whom do not have university degrees, and intellectual foreigners convinced that their advanced academic training should allow them wide berth in the oral recounting of art history.


Grossman: Not going back.

What happened to Grossman — he lost to the AGT Siena in January 2003 but had the verdict reversed on appeal a little over a year later — serves as a portal into a loosely-governed world few foreign residents in Italy, and fewer tourists, even know exists: the world of the expert tour guide.

The AGT Siena essentially accused Grossman of being an artistic mercenary, selling his intellect and insight into Siena to visitors; he countered by insisting he was an instructor carrying out his duties in an exemplary way. Their legal war dragged on over nearly four years, ultimately embittering both sides and making Grossman think twice about ever again residing in a country whose artistic treasures he loves.

THE GROSSMAN SAGA is typically freighted with Italian bureaucratic legal delay and semantic nuance. It began in 1988 when he first visited Siena as a tourist, though an informed one. "I fell instantly in love with the architectural aesthetic of the place, which for me was almost mystical," he says. Grossman returned during his first year of graduate school at Columbia University, and by 1995 he'd decided to make Siena's architecture the topic of his dissertation. In the autumn of 1996, after having finished his Ph.D. coursework in art history, he moved to Siena to become a resident and begin his research. "I chose Siena as the subject of my dissertation because its architecture has received relatively little attention as compared to other Italian cities such as Rome or Florence," said Grossman, who was born and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Grossman's Siena research was supported by an award he won from Columbia and by the Chester Dale Fellowship of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., "The research that Max Grossman was doing was going to change the way that scholars and historians looked at Siena," said Paolo Alei, a professor of art history at Rome's John Cabot University and a classmate of Grossman's at Columbia. In all, Grossman studied the city for seven years. According to Alei and others, he had read hundreds of texts on the city and compiled a photographic record of Siena and its environs consisting of about 8,000 images (later used by a professor of architecture at the University of Siena for restoration work). In local academic circles, he garnered a name for himself as a knowledgeable scholar on Sienese art and architecture.

With local universities always on the lookout for experts to teach English-language students, it wasn't long before Grossman was sought after. Rome-based Trinity College and John Cabot University both asked about his availability. He began teaching a course for CET, an American study abroad program based out of Washington, D.C., and associated with Perugia's Universitΰ per Stranieri. CET teaches art history, language and political science to undergraduates from a variety of American institutions. "Max [Grossman] lived in Siena and he was perfect. He was a Sienese scholar, and I really wanted someone who was living in Siena who understood the art and architecture and was able to communicate well with American students," said Elaine Ruffalo, the academic director of CET. "He taught for me and did a great job."

On occasion he even lectured on his dissertation, in Italian, to professors at the University of Siena. In addition, he also began to offer private art history lessons and seminars, which he listed on his website, "Explore Siena." Based on the site, undergraduates, graduates, and university faculty registered for his courses, but so did small groups recommended to him by local and foreign teachers, as well as visitors passing through the city.

Though these courses never constituted a full-time business and did not number more than five attendees, they typically took place in Siena once or twice a month and involved walks (he also did excursions to Rome, Florence, and the Sienese countryside). "I did it to make the knowledge available to people who wanted to study the material," said Grossman.

But to the AGT Siena, it didn't matter why he was conducting the walks; in their eyes he was breaking the law.

THE AGT SIENA is a non-profit association founded in 1998 to help regulate the tour guide industry, which it does by supporting and representing licensed tour guides. (On average over four million tourists visit Siena and the province of Siena annually — one million overnight visitors and three million visitors who stay less than three hours.)

Since UNESCO had declared Siena a world heritage site in 1997, the tour business seemed logical. Ostensibly proud of its city, the AGT Siena worked with city officials to forestall illegal guides, which its members believed preyed on unsuspecting tourists and sometimes passed along inadequate or inaccurate information about the city's monuments.

The AGT Siena's authority derived from a presidential decree issued in 1995 that gave regional governments wide latitude to regulate the standards within the local tour guide industry. The Comune of Siena, the city's local government, decided to strictly regulate tours in the cities and towns cited by UNESCO; in addition to Siena, these included San Gimignano and Pienza. Guides would only be official, said the city, if they obtained a license conferred by the regional authority upon the passing of an exam. "When we deal with commercial activities regarding the patrimony, we have to regulate them," said Rita Ceccarelli, the current president of the AGT Siena. "The very important thing is the license because the license tells your knowledge, your skill, your attitude..."

Though it is among the largest industries in Italy, tourism has proven to be a tough one to regulate. The 1995 changes adopted by Italian state officials, along with local laws, were intended to improve and streamline the process. In fact, they seemed only to muddy the waters, creating distinctions that appeared arbitrary to some. Moreover, the policing process was murky at best. Today, hundreds, if not thousands, of putative guides act illegally as tour guides — at least on paper. Mostly, the guide process is not rigorously monitored. The AGT Siena, honing in on its interests, took advantage of the regional law requiring licenses to strike an agreement with the Siena city government to ensure that its members had exclusive rights to show off the sights for commercial purposes. While the intent may have been noble, the deal was financial.

But some foreign university scholars objected, noting that they should have the right to research and teach, and do so without facing abuse from local guides. They claimed this right was even more basic — and more valuable — than the harvesting of tourist dollars. It was not the law they objected to, many said, but disrespect in their regard.

That Italy and Italian authorities are loyal to their own citizens and their local sense of belonging, as well as their income, provoked a tense standoff between sanctioned tour guides and those seen by locals as outsiders and pretenders.

Add to this the view — from the Siena perspective — the fact that Grossman was an American, a brazen outsider, and the clash between the two sides seemed inevitable.

When the AGT Siena filed suit, it stirred an already bubbling pot. American academics, foreign and Italian scholars, and the U.S. government thought warily of the idea that a scholar of art history had been accused over what seemed like a benign and erudite activity. UNESCO's involvement — the Italian government must monitor sites that it designates as historical — further upped the stakes. What began as a misunderstanding or a disagreement between Grossman and the AGT Siena quickly escalated into recrimination. Grossman was particularly angry because he thought he'd taken measures to avoid falling afoul of the law. He'd hired Sienese lawyer Daniele Bielli as an overseer to help ensure his activities were legal and to keep his books. Grossman also explained his activities on his website (he claims the text was approved by an associate of Bielli's) to differentiate his services from those of the guides. And he seemed protected.

Article 100 of the regional law code of Tuscany is verbose but clear. It states that "didactic activities led by experts, even with lessons at the site under consideration, issuing from schools and institutes of any order or degree and led within the context of didactic courses of a seminar-like character" are exempt from tour guide legislation. There's also Article 33 of the Italian Constitution: "Art and science are free, and free shall be the teaching of them."

Ironically, it may have been Grossman's effort to differentiate himself from AGT Siena guides that exacerbated the situation. He noted on his website that "tour guides recite memorized text in front of large groups of tourists," while he took care "of small groups ... demonstrating years of intense and highly specialized study, and consequently is able to explain paintings and buildings at a higher level." This was too much for the AGT Siena, which claimed to have unspecified proof that Grossman was acting not as a teacher but a guide. They filed suit on Jan. 31, 2001. Enraged, Grossman vowed to fight back, basing his defense on the fundamental premise that he was a teacher leading students, which exempted him from needing a tour guide license.

THE CURRENT AGT Siena president, Rita Ceccarelli, wasn't in charge when the Grossman case exploded but understands it. "It's very difficult for us," she says politely. "We are trying to create a new sensibility, a new feeling for this profession. We want people to understand the importance of what we do because nobody knows about this profession. In the past the tour guide was just a teacher or a student who led around tourists in their spare time. We are not the people with the umbrella. We are not simply that, we are more than that."

Her insight confirms that Grossman struck a raw nerve. By appearing to condescend on his website he reinforced a stereotype the AGT Siena was trying hard to quash. Adds Ceccarelli on Grossman: "I don't want to say that he isn't knowledgeable. But he doesn't have to say that we are not. We have some guides that have degrees too."

In March 2000, the regional law was changed to mandate that aspiring tour guides complete a 900-hour year-long course on history, art and tourism, among other things, before being permitted to take a certification test. Moreover, only 20 people would be selected to take the annual course. This automatically placed a cap on how many new tour guides could get work. Conversely, only about half of the AGT Siena's 86 guides (the figure is Ceccarelli's) ever took the test, since many were employed before the 2000 legislation. In addition, bidding for enrollment in the tour guide course required only a high school diploma (a handful of the Siena guides do have college degrees).

If Grossman seemed to flaunt his pedigree, something else also bothered the AGT Siena. During his "excursions," he offered to recommend restaurants and similar amenities to his clients. To the AGT Siena, this sounded like a commercial activity. "We don't complain about teachers who teach to their students, but we do complain about people who pretend to be teachers but behave like tour guides and have a commercial activity," said Ceccarelli. "You don't teach clients you got through an Internet website."

Some organizations have come to understand this.

Scala Reale is a Rome-based tour operator that uses an American liberal arts college approach to teach clients. Founded in 1999, the company says its goal is to provide a scholarly approach to tours by employing "university graduates, most with advanced degrees and specializations in fields such as history, architecture, archaeology, or art." To do this, Scala Reale was incorporated as a "cultural association," a loophole in Italian law that allows a commercial activity to function within an educational context. (Ethnic restaurants have used the loophole in recent years.) In 2003, however, Italian officials cracked down. "We basically put up our hands," said Paul Bennett, the company's director. "Our lawyers thought we could [lead walks]. But the Guardia di Finanza decided no. They let us off with a fine."

The company was given two options: close or yield to the law. Bennett found a compromise. "We hired a couple of guides to be consultants with us, to help us decide what we needed to do. What we decided to do was to hire licensed guides to come along and co-lead our tours."

Now, Scala Reale's dilemma is following through with its scholarly pledge. Not just any guide will do. "We only hire guides who conform essentially to the credentials of our scholars, so you have to have a laurea or a dottorato. It has been very difficult to find licensed guides in Rome that fit these requirements. The biggest fear for us is about keeping the quality high."

Though Scala Reale is a certified tour company with a permanent staff and offices in the United States and Italy, Bennett acknowledges that his client base is difficult to define. "I guess you might construe us as doing continuing education," said Bennett. "[Clients] decided to go with us and pay more money not just because they wanted better information but because they kind of wanted an experience that was like going back to school."

The Scala Reale example is relevant because scholars based in Italy say they find it hard to distinguish with systematic certainty between students and tourists. One scholar, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said she still hires an official guide to join her on excursions though she's been teaching in Florence and leading tours for 15 years. Her clients include members of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington D.C. "What I do is hire one of the official guides to just follow along so that if anybody was to hassle me I would say, 'Look I do have an official guide here, he or she is...' It's an extra cost and a hassle, but it's the law."

Some writers and scholars who advertise tours of Italy on the web tend to do the same thing, covering their flanks. For example, Rome-based author Alan Epstein, an American who has written extensively about Italy, advertises customized tours on his website but noted in an email that "accredited guides" accompany his tours, placing him well within the confines of the law.

But Grossman vehemently refuses to acknowledge even the hint of a link between his vocation of teaching and behaving as a guide. "I am a university educated scholar. I have two Masters degrees in art history and have completed my Ph.D. coursework from Columbia University. I am not a tour guide." His tone is that of a man frustrated at having to continually convince people outside the American educational system that these advanced degrees are significant.

Ceccarelli's refutation of Grossman is tart. "It's too easy to say that you are teaching [so you are exempt from needing a license]. I am teaching, because everyday in front of my clients, I teach. [My clients] say to me, 'Oh, how knowledgeable you are, oh we learned so much.' So if we use the word teaching this way, we are all teaching."

To the AGT Siena the matter was clear. Whatever his educational pedigree, the law required that Grossman get a tour guide license if he wished to keep operating his business. The two sides quarreled in 2000, and Grossman remembered his exasperation. "Why should I have to interrupt my research, my teaching, to go back and take a course that teaches me what I already know?" he says. "Why should professors get tour guide licenses? If we did, we would be taking legitimate business away from tour guides. We're not guides. We don't want to be tour guides."

There's another complication. Despite the law, the AGT Siena's tour guide course is not an annual offering in Siena. A Siena city official, who declined to be named, said the course wasn't being offered this year and doubted it would be next. "It is up to the AGT Siena to decide when the test is given," the official said tersely. The AGT Siena also determined how many candidates should be allowed into the course when it's offered. For now, there are too many guides and not enough work. So even if Grossman, or someone like him, wished to bid for a license, his chances might be slim.

When it finally came, the suit against Grossman was a result of a complaint filed by guide Donatella Grilli to then-AGT President Vittoria Nepi Adami. Though a civil action, the AGT Siena filed the complaint in criminal court using Article 348 of the penal code, a section that might be used, say, if a doctor performed surgery without a license.

Grossman turned to Bielli to represent him. And Bielli, who had helped start Grossman's business, immediately asked Grossman to abridge the wording on his website. "I made him change it right away because at first, let's say, it wasn't well done. There was this lack of clarity in the presentation that could leave doubts on what this activity really was," said Bielli. "Let's say it was putting in elements that were not exactly connected to the history of art."

But Bielli stood by his client. "What counted was not really the website but what [Grossman] actually did. And in defense of these actions, we had written testimonies, letters, lots of material where it was clear they were talking about lessons, not about taking huge groups around as the tour guides do."

Grossman called the U.S. Consulate in Florence, and Consul General William W. McIlhenny responded to his plea for help with a letter that said, in part: "... It has been brought to our attention that many American scholars of art history present in the territory of the Province of Siena have been repeatedly disturbed by the tour guides ...we have been informed that certain guides of the Province of Siena have launched a lawsuit against Max Grossman ... and we wish to express our interest that Mr. Grossman be treated properly."

Grossman told Bielli of a pattern of a harassment. He claimed that early in his Siena stay off-duty tour guides had approached him disparagingly. Once, while with a leading expert on Tuscan art and 13 graduate students Grossman said a guide stopped the expert, a professor at a major American university, and "threatened" him with a one million lire fine. "A local tour guide came up to me and said I shouldn't be teaching and that he would report me," confirmed the professor, requesting anonymity. The two sides exchanged heated words. "The guide never bothered to ask who we were or what we were doing," added Grossman. "He said that they had already fined a Spanish woman that very morning."

Similar stories emerged in interviews with several scholars and teachers, who asked to remain anonymous, fearing reprisals. A teacher at the Dante Alighieri School in Siena recalled an incident inside the city's Duomo. "I was explaining the pulpit to a group of students when I felt somebody tap me on my shoulder. I turned and there was literally a crazy [tour guide] pointing her finger toward me and telling me that I didn't have any authorization to do what I was doing in front of my students. When I replied that I was only doing my normal job of teaching she told me that if she would have seen me again she would have called the police."

To protect their teachers from harassment, local institutions in Siena have resorted to providing a badge and a letter explaining their mission. Officials at CET and Dante Alighieri say the policy has helped. "We used to have a lot of problems five years ago," said Dante Alighieri School president Luca Buoni. "...We talked to the [AGT Siena] and what they wanted was that the teachers had to be very well identified with a badge with our logo on it and the first and last name of the teacher. We also give them letters to carry around in case they are stopped that say they are teaching for us." Sophia Ferri, the resident director of CET, says she gives all her teachers "a letter that says who they are and what they are doing."

Ceccarelli dismisses the demonizing of her organization. "We are not so bad. We have nothing against teachers. The teachers are allowed to teach their students. The law protects teachers, we know that." But she admits it is possible that guides may have interrupted teachers to demand authorization. "It is a mistake. Maybe some of the guides lose control. They see a person who is not a guide and go over and say, 'Oh do you have the license or not?' They are wrong, they don't have to do it because it is not our task. It is the police's task." Some scholars, fearing police involvement, are terrified to even come to the city anymore. "I will never take my students to Siena again," said Alei.

"ALL AMERICANS should read the book, 'Maledetti Toscani,'" says Journalist Cecilia Marzotti, a reporter for Il Corriere di Siena. The 1956 book by Italian Curzio Malaparte was an indictment of the Tuscan character, which he saw as belligerent and venal. "Aggressiveness is in some way part of the history of this town, most of all this region, because there are little pieces of our history characterized by [it] that we use either to defend ourselves or to protect something."

This may explain what city officials had in mind when they posted signs that said in Italian: "Only the guides authorized by the city of Siena can illustrate the interior and exterior of the city." The signs did not mention authorized teachers or state the law that conferred this authority. Also on the sign was a statement that UNESCO had designated Siena as a world heritage site. In an article published in the Florence-based newspaper La Nazione on Oct. 3, 2002, the regional tourist superintendent Donatella Cinelli Colombini explained that the signs were essential because "the exceptionality of Siena determined its designation as a world heritage site by UNESCO."

Among the protections accorded by the UNESCO designation, she declared, was that the city be "explained and described only by authorized tour guides." Though Colombini says she was merely outlining a part of the 1995 presidential decree that allowed regions to regulate their own sites, it's not hard to extrapolate how scholars and teachers might have assumed the UNESCO decision also covered the tour guide issue. Now, Colombini insists the two issues are unconnected. "No, no, no," she says on the phone when asked if UNESCO mandates "official" tour guides. "It is the region, not UNESCO, that says this," she said. The AGT Siena made a similar connection.

On its website the AGT Siena wrote: "As a member of UNESCO world heritage, Siena, together with cities of its province such as San Gimignano, Montalcino, Pienza, Chiusi, Montepulciano and other famous towns in the Orcia Valley such as the Crete, the Chianti zone and the mountain area of Amiata, requires that only officially appointed tour guides accompany tourists during their visits to these towns." Ceccarelli, like Colombini, reiterates the decision is regional. Why their clarity is absent from the website is open to conjecture.

But can the signs intimidate? Ceccarelli smiles at this query. "If you are not guilty you don't have to feel guilty. It is not directed at people who are legal. It is directed at people who are not legal. [The signs] should intimidate people who are not legal. That is the aim of that inscription."

The CET's Ruffalo agrees. "I don't think scholars pay attention to the signs. If you are a scholar and you are coming in to do research in Siena, you're not looking at signs anyway, you're going to do your research." Alei disagrees. If the tour guides really believe teachers and scholars are entitled to comment on what they see, "Why is it not written?" he asks.

Grossman's case finally went to trial on Jan. 27, 2003. The defense was straightforward: Grossman was a scholar leading students. He did not need a tour guide license. As for the defamatory remarks, they stemmed, according to the defense, from an AGT Siena mistranslation from English to Italian. Bielli also argued that Article 348 of the penal code was not applicable in the case because the AGT Siena wasn't recognized by the state as a "guild," which meant it was not entitled to state protection on the license (doctors, for example, have such associations, so do airline pilots.)

Still, Grossman was worried and Bielli uneasy about the outcome. Grossman recalls Bielli mentioning, "This is a trial that is probably not going to go well in Siena." Bielli was right. Grossman was convicted on both counts. The ruling, at a key point, effectively states the following: If the most famous art historian accompanied a group to show them the city's most famous sites, that would in itself, and illegally, constitute the act of being a tourist guide.

Grossman was ordered to pay a €500 fine and stop offering on-site lessons unless he hired a tour guide. But the damage cut far deeper. In effect, the verdict would end his Italian stay, since to renew a residency permit after a conviction is not easy in Italy.

But the verdict was far from popular. Several newspapers and organizations expressed outrage.

Vincenzo Donvito of the Association for the Rights of Users and Consumers (ADUC), a consumer group, wrote: "Today the tour guide 'corporation' has won a point to its advantage, but we have a strong impression that the cost of their victory will be paid by all of us, and not only Grossman."

Grossman ally Alei was distressed. "My worry, as an Italian professor who has studied and taught in foreign countries," he wrote in a letter to the city, "is that for many scholars, Grossman's conviction has put Siena in a bad light as well as compromised research on Italian art. It has made our country seem ridiculous among those who study our culture at a high level."

Immediately after the verdict, Grossman appealed, selling his car to pay legal fees. This time he enlisted Eriberto Rosso, a noted Florentine lawyer. The Florence appellate court heard the case on May 7, 2004, more than a year later. In a strange twist, the local prosecutor asked that the charges be dismissed, according to Bielli, because he'd had almost no involvement in the AGT Siena's original case.

Rosso continued nonetheless, following protocol. The dropping of charges does not in itself void a conviction. He followed Bielli's lead, saying that Grossman's web remarks could not be construed as defamation because "the statements didn't constitute a value judgment of the tour guides, but represented simply the activity objectively carried out by the guides with respect to tour groups." He added: "The activity exercised by the accused cannot be associated with that of the tour guides, since it was of a didactic activity." Rosso also challenged the legality of the AGT Siena filing the suit in criminal court.

After a brief recess, Grossman returned to hear that the original ruling had been reversed; he'd been exonerated. Elated, he turned and smiled at his friend Alei, who had come to lend support. Forty months had passed since the AGT Siena suit. There was no defamation, said the appellate judge, because "[the statements] made by [Grossman] were only descriptive, and had no denigrating meaning with respect to [guides]." He also ruled that the alleged insult on the website was in fact a mistranslation; the word "memorized" was written as "mandati a memoria," which can be interpreted in a more pejorative way than the more accurate "memorizzati."

He also sided with Grossman regarding the contested penal code section, which effectively negated the entire AGT Siena suit. But on the matter of "abuse of profession," the appeals judge said that he saw similarities between the activities that Grossman offered on his website and what tour guides do for their livelihood. Though this final point didn't affect the ruling, it failed to close out the debate.

THE VICTORY was bittersweet for Grossman. The conviction damaged his finances and his reputation. Some felt the damage to Grossman was secondary to what the AGT Siena had evidenced by moving against him. While the tour guide issue drove the AGT Siena to act, a wish to maintain the protectionist strength of guilds seemed implicit. "[These kinds of cases] put in doubt ... the principles of freedom of opinion and liberty of expression," said Donvito. "We are in the free market. Free market and competition can coexist only in a free society that respects the rules."

"I have traveled all around the world and I can

guarantee that all the world is like Siena," said journalist Marzotti who covered parts of the Grossman's case for Il Corriere di Siena. "You love your family. You love your house. You love the city where you're from. You cherish the little pieces that are part of your life. If someone comes to invade your life, your family, your house, maybe you would want to protect them too."

Scala Reale director Bennett was blunt. "It's protectionism, and I thought that we learned that protectionism is never a good thing. The Italian people need to think about it from the long view. Forget the tour guides and their own individual needs. [They need to] think about the long view of Italy."

Ceccarelli's view is also sobering. "We are the victims in this, and that is really very sad because I didn't intend to offend anybody," she says. "We feel like in this kind of situation you cannot defend yourself anymore because things around you are more powerful than you." Though her organization lost, she is steadfast that the AGT Siena did nothing wrong. Predictably, she notes the appellate court's comment on Grossman's website offerings, the only part of the sentence that could be interpreted as support for the guides. "The judge has ruled that Mr. Grossman's line of business is no different than that of a tour guide. The ruling of the court seems to show that we acted in good faith."

Grossman, who is now finishing his dissertation in San Francisco, has decided that if he ever lives in Italy again it will not be in Siena. "I learned that what they say about Siena is true," he says. "That it is a medieval city. That the guild mentality survives to this very day."

The case may have broader repercussions, however. The Italian National Commission, which brokers relations between Italy's foreign affairs ministry and UNESCO, appears to have taken an interest in the Grossman incident. While the commission won't confirm whether it is investigating the AGT Siena over abusing the UNESCO name on their website, Ceccarelli says both her organization and the Comune of Siena office have received formal queries regarding the matter. She would not elaborate. A UNESCO official in Paris, who declined to be named, said the organization found the use of its name in connection with the AGT Siena website "troubling," but also declined to confirm the existence of a formal investigation.

With or without an investigation, the stain of the quarrel is on Siena, something Ceccarelli all but admits. "We are in love with our city, we are very involved. We are very proud in presenting our country so we really suffer when we see people who say wrong things, who don't understand the real value of our traditions, and they misunderstand and they present our culture in the wrong way. We really suffer for that."

Just as scholars such as Grossman rue their inability to tell the world about a place whose heritage they've studied and learned to love.

It's an Italian paradox in which both sides lose.

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