Barbara McMahon

Move sparks debate among the clergy and art critics

Sponsors agree to donate money towards upkeep of the basilica"Advertising to give sponsors due publicity for funding restoration works"Advertising will be "discreet" to avoid disturbing visitors

Rome: The faithful attending one of Italy's oldest churches may find their eyes drawn from statues and frescoes to a poster advertising a bank.

For the first time, commercial advertising is being allowed inside a church in Italy, a move sparking debate among clergy and art critics.

The advertisement, promoting a local bank's mortgage and loan services, has been put up in the right-hand aisle of St. Anthony's Basilica in Padua as a test case. Posters for other financial institutions have been displayed in the grounds. Further advertising spots will be allowed as long as sponsors agree to donate money towards the upkeep of the 13th-century basilica.

"We must generate funds," said Gianni Berno, president of the Veneranda Arca, the association founded in the Middle Ages to administer the Basilica's assets. He said about 8 million euros were needed every year to maintain the huge religious complex, one of Italy's Romanesque-Gothic masterpieces. More is needed after the recent collapse of the friary roof and funds promised by the Government last year were not delivered, he added.

"The Basilica is known all around the world and the advertising inside the church will grant sponsors such as private companies, banks and financial institutions the publicity due to them for funding restoration works," he said.

Berno said the interior advertising would be "discreet" to avoid disturbing visitors who come to pray or see the tomb of St. Anthony and bronze reliefs by Donatello, marble carvings by Lombardo and frescoes by Titian.

The objections are being led by Father Cesare Contarini, editor of a weekly diocesan magazine. "It's not such a big step from banks to crisps or swimwear. It will be no time before bikinis are advertised in churches," he said.

Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006