According to UNESCO, “Heritage is our legacy from the past, what we live with today, and what we pass on to future generations. Our cultural and natural heritage are both irreplaceable sources of life and inspiration.” UNESCO—the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization—was founded in 1945 to promote world peace and security through international cooperation in education, the sciences, and culture. It has 193 member states and 11 associate members. UNESCO’s mission has expanded over the years to include the establishment of World Heritage Sites of cultural and natural importance.
The origins date back to 1954, when Egypt decided to build the new Aswan High Dam. Predictably, the resulting reservoir would eventually inundate a large area of the Nile valley, which contained treasures of ancient Egypt and ancient Nubia. The Governments of Egypt and Sudan asked UNESCO to assist them to protect the endangered monuments and sites. The project resulted in the recovery of thousands of artifacts and the relocation to higher ground of important temples. It was also the starting point of the Convention on the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage and the consequent establishment of the World Heritage List.
The Galapagos Islands in Ecuador, Yellowstone National Park in the United States, and the Island of Goree in Senegal (the largest slave-trading center on the African coast) were among the 12 sites named to the first list in 1978. The World Heritage List currently consists of a total of 1,153 assets in 167 countries around the world. The last update of July 2021 includes the porticos of Bologna. According to UNESCO, some porticos are built of wood, while others are made of stone or brick. They cover the roads, squares, paths, and walkways of Bologna, and sometimes can be found on both sides of a street. They cover a total area of 62 km and are a major part of Bologna’s identity. This year UNESCO also recognized Montecatini Terme, a series of spas in Tuscany, and the fourteenth-century frescoes of Padua, which include Giotto’s Scrovegni Chapel fresco cycle, which marked the beginning of a revolutionary development in the history of mural painting.
With 58 World Heritage Sites, Italy has the most of any country. Interestingly, the city with the most sites is not Rome or Paris; they were recently surpassed by Córdoba, the 22nd largest city in Spain. The Mosque of Córdoba was the city’s first-named site. Historians believe that the original structure was built as a church in the sixth century, converted into a mosque the following century, and later changed back to a cathedral. The building’s design—with its many horseshoe arches, domes, and decorative tile work—is the epitome of Moorish architecture.
Cultural heritage is not just about monuments and natural sites, but also about traditions, oral expressions, social practices and rites transmitted, over the centuries, by our ancestors. That’s why in 2017 UNESCO placed the art of Neapolitan pizzaioli on the honored List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity: “The culinary know-how associated with pizza-making–which includes gestures, songs, visual forms of expression, local linguistic utterances and the ability to handle pizza dough properly and to transform pizza making into a performance to share—is without a doubt a cultural patrimony. Pizzaioli and their guests all participate in a social ritual steeped in conviviality, where counter and stone oven work as a stage.”
UNESCO sets rigorous standards for recognition. An asset must be considered of “exceptional universal value,” must meet conditions of integrity and authenticity, and must be equipped with an adequate protection and management system. Preserving these sites and monuments and traditions is a legacy for future generations.