ROME (Reuters) - Italy is home to an artistic and archaeological treasure trove, ranging from Da Vinci's Last Supper to the ruins of Pompeii, but the first census of the country's museums, historical sites and monuments showed it is far from making the most of its heritage.
Only half the country's museums have a website, their contents are often unidentified and visitors are sparse compared with major sites elsewhere, according to the study, which was released on Thursday.
Its top 15 sites and museums, such as the Roman Forum, Florence's Uffizi Gallery and the Roman town of Pompeii, had under one million visitors each in 2011, the data showed. By contrast, France's Louvre, the world's most visited museum, had 9.7 million visitors last year.
The report was issued weeks after the government passed a package to boost the culture sector, which it believes could help the economy out of a recession that has lasted more than two years. The study by national statistics office ISTAT indicates the scale of the challenge.
The October decree included a plan to rescue Pompeii, a city preserved in a volcanic eruption 2,000 years ago and declared to be in a state of emergency in 2008 because of looting, damage and lack of maintenance.
But many lesser-known sites around Italy are also crumbling from neglect and because of the difficulty of funding their upkeep in a country whose public debt is second only to Greece's in the European Union.
Tourism is a vital sector for Italy, which has the highest number of Unesco World Heritage sites in the world. It provides 10 percent of its gross domestic product and 2.7 million jobs in a country where unemployment is at a record high.
The research revealed great gaps in knowledge about what artefacts Italy's museums hold. Scarcely more than half were inventoried and only a fifth were catalogued.
Fewer than half of museums had information available in English and only 16 percent had materials in French and German, even though those are the most common languages spoken by tourists to the world's fifth-most visited country.
And of the 104 million people who visited Italy's heritage sites in 2011, just under half did not pay to enter.
Reporting by Naomi O'Leary; Editing by Larry King