Company creates free guided tours to over 30 monuments in Cagliari, Italy to protect and showcase the local cultural heritance

The Santa Restituta crypt in Cagliari, Sardinia, has a history going back to pre-Christian times. Over the centuries, it has been a limestone quarry, a Phoenician religious site, a place for Christian worship, and a WWII air-raid shelter. One of the city’s most important monuments, the crypt was closed to the public in the early 1990s, until a Sardinian association named Ipogeo had the idea to open it up and give free guided tours once a year.

Massimiliano Messina was one of five university students who founded Ipogeo in 1993. He says the idea was to spread awareness of Cagliari’s rich cultural heritage “to the young people of the present and the future.” 

From the association’s modest first step, offering free tours of the Santa Restituta crypt, it developed an annual event called Monumenti Aperti, or Open Monuments. It was launched on a spring weekend in 1997, when volunteers from local schools and associations gave free guided visits of 30 monuments in Cagliari to tourists and citizens.

At the time, a 16-year-old student named Marco Cabitza was one of Monumenti Aperti’s first volunteers. He ended up dedicating his career to the event and is currently its project and education manager.

“Cultural heritage is something magical,” he says, “because it can build bridges between people and communities, and between the past and the future. It plays a fundamental role in our European identity and gives an impetus to social and economic development.”

Another Cagliari resident, Fabrizio Frongia, founded a different cultural association in 1993 called Imago Mundi, which has managed Monumenti Aperti since 1999. He notes, “Cultural heritage is a tool to preserve identity. And if you have young people who learn how to understand the history of a monument, you can have a very strong ambassador of your city.”

Monumenti Aperti by Imago Mundi was a finalist in the European Investment Bank Institute’s 2023 Social Innovation Tournament, which recognises entrepreneurs making a social, ethical, or environmental contribution to society. The association hopes this exposure will help it export the project to other countries.

An annual culture party

Every year, Monumenti Aperti runs for around eight weeks, generally from May through June, with dozens of municipalities opening their monuments (many of them normally inaccessible to the public for one weekend, for free.

In the decades since it started, Monumenti Aperti has grown impressively, supported by annual grants from municipalities, regional government, businesses, and private donors. In 2023, some 20 000 volunteers, most of them students, showed 750 monuments to 200 000 visitors. Sixty-two Italian municipalities took part —most of them in Sardinia, though the initiative has spread to five other regions.

© Ipogeo

The sites people visit run the gamut from the “Sa Bovida” Spanish prison, in Aritzo, to the Bronze Age “Giants’ Tomb,” in Triei, to the ruins of a medieval castle in Chiaramonti. Monumenti Aperti also features intangible cultural heritage, such as Sardinia’s “cantu a tenore” polyphonic folk singing.

The event is like an annual party, says Fabrizio, “and when it is finished, we always make a brindisi, a cheer, with everybody, volunteers new and old.”

Linking cultures and traditions

When a new municipality joins, it gives Imago Mundi a list of important local monuments. The organisation then activates the community with an open call for local schools and associations to sponsor the sites. “They start to take care of the monuments, adopt them, and study their history,” says Marco. Schoolteachers are trained to teach their students how to lead monument tours.

Monumenti Aperti also offers guided tours to disabled people and to migrants, who can then volunteer to give tours in their own language. “After two or three years, they learn Italian,” says Fabrizio, “and tell the history and the monuments in our language. That’s a powerful way to link tradition and cultures, and to have new citizens.” Last year, for instance, a group of Afghan refugees explained Cagliari’s ancient slaughterhouse to Sardinian people, in Italian.

Some European students visiting Italy on the Erasmus exchange programme give tours in their native languages. And through Erasmus, Imago Mundi has experimented with student-led tours in Belgium and Spain.

A multiplier effect

Like Marco, many students have been inspired by Monumenti Aperti to major in tourism and cultural heritage at university. This has a multiplier effect, creating new jobs, companies, and associations. “For example,” says Marco, “in Cagliari, some of the monuments that were open in the first edition, in 1997, are now managed by cultural enterprises, with a regular employment contract for the operators.”

© Ipogeo

Italy has the world’s greatest number of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and so much cultural patrimony that the country’s lesser-known treasures can easily be overlooked. Several monuments that were nearly forgotten before being “rediscovered” by Monumenti Aperti have now undergone conservation or restoration work.

UNESCO states that culture reinforces the identity and cohesion of communities and is “one of our most powerful resources to transform societies and renew ideas.” Thanks to Monumenti Aperti, thousands of young people are helping to mold the future by preserving what previous generations left behind.