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ROME (Reuters) - Rome's Colosseum was visibly cleaner on Friday as Italy showed off the latest phase of restoration of one of its most famous landmarks.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, speaking on a stage in the amphitheatre built to host gladiatorial contests nearly 2,000 years ago, hailed the mammoth clean-up project as an example for protecting the country's vast cultural heritage.
Italy's monuments were neglected for decades amid shrinking government funding and alleged mismanagement, which put some of its 51 UNESCO World Heritage sites at risk of crumbling.
They included the Colosseum, which had fallen into disrepair when luxury shoemaker Tod's pledged 25 million euros ($28 mln) to restore it five years ago.
The project risked being canceled after coming under scrutiny from regulators and unions, mostly over the awarding of the restoration contract, but the cleanup of the outer surface of the amphitheatre, which required covering parts of it in scaffolding, is now complete.
Renzi, standing on a floor above cages where lions and other wild animals were let loose during gladiator fights, praised the private investment in a site that attracts 6 million visitors a year.
"Someone who got their wallet out and wrote a big check has shown that maybe the idea that you can't get things done in Italy is finished," the premier said.
Over the past three years, restorers have delicately cleaned more than 10,000 square meters of the stone facade with natural-fiber brushes, applying 1,700 kilograms of lime putty and filler into cracks in the surface, while the monument remained opened to throngs of tourists.
In a bid to support its artistic heritage, Italy introduced tax credits on donations to the arts in 2014. The government has also raised the culture ministry's budget after years of cuts.
Restoration work will now focus on the inside of the Colosseum, repairing its passageways and underground vaults and building a visitors' center.
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini said 18 million euros of public money has already been set aside to extend the central floor of the Colosseum in order to make it more suitable as a venue for cultural events. ($1 = 0.8986 euros)
Reporting by Isla Binnie; Editing by Susan Fenton