ROME Pray or pay.
At dozens of Italian churches struggling to preserve art treasures from Byzantine mosaics to Baroque paintings, that is the choice many visitors must make.
Houses of worship are increasingly adopting entrance fees to help cope with a flood of visitors who are often more interested in lingering before Tiepolo or Titian than in pausing for prayer in the pews.
While many cathedrals have long charged fees for ''side'' attractions such as climbing up a cupola or visiting a crypt, many of Italy's churches are requiring tickets to visit the church itself.
''We have a little waiting list,'' said Luca Baldin of the churches eager to join Chorus Churches of Venice, a grouping of Venetian churches which charge entrance fees.
So far, 15 churches have banded together in the association, which Baldin directs. About $10 buys an entrance ticket good for all member churches for an entire year. A single entry ticket costs about $3.
Venetians and clergy are exempt, as are visitors who come just to pray or attend Mass.
''Rightly or wrongly the churches were closed because they didn't have the personnel to guard them, and when they were opened, for religious purposes, there was unmistakable disturbance by those who entered, not so much for religious reasons, but to see the art,'' said Baldin, in a telephone interview from the group's headquarters in Venice.
He likened the plight of Venice to that in the historic heart of Florence, where several churches have started charging admission in the last few years.
Both cities are overwhelmed by tourists.
Deciding to charge visitors to enter Santa Maria Novella across from Florence's main train station was agonizing, said Gianni Guido Rosetti, director of what is considered the most important Gothic church in Tuscany.
But ''the alternative was to open the church only for religious reasons and not to the public. That seemed worse'' than an admission fee, Rosetti said.
Every year, some 350,000 visitors stroll through Santa Maria's vaulted nave, admiring masterpieces including a 15th century fresco by Masaccio and crucifixes by Giotto and Brunelleschi.
Ticket revenue permitted the church to increase the number of custodians from two to 19, remove graffiti and chewing gum from walls and pavement and pay the bill to illuminate the entire church, Rosetti said.
Churches in Italy often depend on corporate sponsors, eager for good-will publicity, to pay for needed restorations.
''But while you can find a sponsor for a Giotto crucifix, no one's going to sponsor paying salaries or the electric company,'' said Rosetti.
San Giacomo dall'Orio in Venice has Byzantine columns, a 14th century crucifix and a 14th century wooden roof whose shape resembles that of a keel.
Although there are some notable paintings by artists including Veronese, ''it's the church itself that deserves a tour,'' said the Rev. Aldo Marangoni, San Giacomo's pastor and Chorus president.
''We say, 'If you want to visit, you have to help''' by buying an entrance ticket, Marangoni said by phone.
A short stroll from San Giacomo stands the 15th century belltower of San Giovanni Elemosinario. The church, with a Titian over the altar, had been closed, Marangoni said, but after joining Chorus it reopened, with a custodian paid by the fees.
For decades at many churches, paintings or statues were illuminated only when tourists dropped coins in a light box. Like moths flitting to a lamp, other visitors would then race across the church to view the artwork bathed briefly in light.
During peak season starting at Easter, visitors to Pisa's cathedral across from the Leaning Tower pay an entrance fee of about $2.50. The fee is waived for those attending religious services and during the offseason.
''It's one thing to want to attend a service, but another to go around touring the church,'' said Cirano Galli, a spokesman for the Pisa office which monitors the tower. ''Some just want to get out of the hot sun.''
Entrance fees allow churches in Verona to stay open longer, said Claudio Pasquetto, director of Associazione Chiese Vive (Association of Living Churches).
Officials said only a very few tourists try to pass themselves off as faithful to avoid the fee while most are understanding.
''The money goes toward restoration and maintenance of monuments,'' said Anna Mayer, of Hamburg, Germany, who was touring Pisa with her husband. ''We also have that'' practice.
Pay or pray hasn't caught on in Rome. Churches, including St. Peter's, do not charge admission, although offering boxes are strategically placed, like the one in front of Michelangelo's ''Pieta'' sculpture, kept behind protective glass near the entrance of the Vatican basilica.
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