A few months ago, during a visit to France, I sat with a friend at breakfast as he scanned the front page of Le Figaro. He read for a moment, raised an eyebrow, and then handed the newspaper across the table, pointing to a prominent item below the fold. According to the article, the Italian Minister of Agriculture, Alfonso Pecoraro Scanio, had launched a campaign to have pizza declared, in essence, a World Heritage Concept, under a new program by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO. Scanio's contention was that pizza was not simply a physical object but, rather, partook of a higher, existential estate, and ought to be considered as the embodiment of a certain kind of creative genius. As such, he argued, pizza met the criteria for UNESCO's soon-to-be-announced list of "Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity."
This initiative came as news to me. An older UNESCO effort is of course widely known: the World Heritage List, begun in 1972 and today numbering almost 700 sites of "exceptional universal value." These are mostly cultural properties (Stonehenge, Machu Picchu, the pyramids, the Statue of Liberty), but they include many natural locations as well (Yosemite National Park, Kilimanjaro National Park, the Great Barrier Reef, the Galápagos Islands). Although one may quibble with some of the selections (the monuments of Neolithic Orkney, fine, but not the architecture of central Dublin? Taos Pueblo but not the mesa-top communities of the Hopi?), the designations by and large seem sensible. The sites gain a certain amount of protection and display their World Heritage status on special plaques.