As far as most of the public knows, the sprawling ministry for fine arts and the national heritage (ministero per i beni culturali e le attivit culturali) occupies itself with monuments, archaeological excavations, museums and conservation of the countryside. In fact, it also covers showbusiness, including cinema and sport. It normally goes about its work quietly, without attracting much attention, but it has recently been the subject of more media coverage than usual, at least in Rome. This is on account of the unexpected and unseemly defenestration of one of its best-known and most respected figures, Adriano La Regina, who, until mid-January, was superintendent for the archaeological assets of Rome (soprintendente ai beni archeologici di Roma).

La Regina held the position for 28 years and although he had reached retirement age (67), he had been given three more years in his post at the end of July last year. The minister of culture and fine arts, Giuliano Urbani, confirmed the extension to his term of office at the beginning of December 2004, along with the appointment of 84 new superintendents. However, a few days later, Urbani announced in a letter published in a northern Italian newspaper, Gazzetta di Modena, that Rome was without a soprintendente. The news sank without trace until mid-January when LUnit, Romes left-wing newspaper, suddenly took it up. The storm broke, and La Regina discreetly disappeared on holiday.

The official explanation for the removal of La Regina was lack of authorisation for funds to pay a salary to someone who could be pensioned off. But behind this contorted tale was the realisation that here was a chance to get rid of an awkward presence.

La Regina had long been nicknamed Mr No, and not for nothing. He had interpreted his role as that of paladin of the enormous archaeological heritage of Rome a concentration of monuments and sites unique in the world. This determination brought him into conflict with eight successive mayors, from both the left and the right of the political spectrum, earning him the aversion of architects, developers and city planners and causing despair to Francesco Rutelli, the leftish major at the time of the millennium, who was trying to rush through numerous, often ill-advised projects in time for the holy year jubilee of 2000.

Wherever La Regina felt there was a threat to archaeological sites or landscapes, he would block schemes for roads, metro tunnels or towers, no matter how prestigious the project. Among his colleagues at all levels, however, he enjoyed the highest esteem for his complete lack of partisanship. The dismay at his removal resulted in the closure on 20 January of all the monuments and museums under the superintendency while colleagues and staff discussed the situation and demanded his reinstatement.

A new superintendent, Angelo Bottini, was appointed with all speed by Urbani in mid-January. He had been in charge of the archaeological assets of Tuscany, and previously of Basilicata, and seems well qualified for the new post. La Regina himself, with generosity and impartiality, has written to commend his replacements skills and experience for the job, and moves off-stage with the utmost of dignity. The politicians, on the other hand, shameless as ever, emerge from the fray reeking of underhand factiousness.

The organisation of the ministry, thanks to its convoluted structure, is in fact designed to prevent excessive concentration of power in any one set of hands. And La Regina was too powerful for many peoples comfort.

After various reorganisations over the last two decades, the present structure of the beni culturali ministry looks like this:

The minister, vice-minister, and two undersecretaries preside over four principal departments, which in turn are divided into lesser sections.

1. The department for cultural and landscape assets. This covers most of the activities traditionally associated with the ministry in the publics eye and is divided into five sections:

a. the general directorate for architectonic and landscape assets.

b. the general directorate for the historical, artistic and ethno-anthropological patrimony.

c. the general directorate for archaeological assets.

d. the general directorate for architecture and contemporary art.

e. the regional directorates for cultural and landscape assets.

2. The department for archive and library assets. This is divided into two sections and is responsible for the states vast range of archives, libraries and cultural institutes,

3. The department for research, innovation and organization. This is divided into two sections, one dealing with budgets, human resources and training, and the other for innovation and promotion.

4. The department for showbusiness and sport. This is divided into two sections, one for the cinema and one for live performances and sport.

Subordinate to these departments are what are called Organi periferici, for which there is no exact English translation; these peripheral organisations are answerable to the four principal departments, follow their guidelines and have senior and specialised executive staff, who enjoy considerable autonomy.

Into these Organi periferici come the superintendents, who to the general public are the most visible servants of this ministry and included the aforementioned La Regina.

There are, for example, 26 superintendents for architectonic and landscape assets, 22 superintendents for archaeological assets, and so on. Cities or sites of exceptional importance can have superintendents of their own. For example, whereas Tuscany has one superintendent for archaeological assets for the whole region, Lazio has one for the region, but also one for southern Etruria, one for Ostia and one for Rome. Campania has one for the region but Pompeii has one all of its own. Turning to superintendents for architectonic and landscape assets, Arezzo and Siena in Tuscany have one each, Rome has one and the Lazio region has one, whereas the Marche has only one for the whole region.

Rome has a particular concentration of superintendents and, on account of the extraordinary richness of its artistic, historical, architectural and archaeological heritage, they are among the most important in the ministry. In addition, since Rome is the capital, decisions made by its superintendents are particularly sensitive and scrutinised with great care. However qualified Bottini, the new superintendent for archaeology may be, Rome is a big step up from Tuscany, and La Reginas will be a very difficult act to follow.