It was hailed as an historic shake-up, a chance to make up for “lost decades” in the management of Italy’s superbly endowed, but often poorly run, museums and galleries.

In an unprecedented move four years ago, the Italian government opened up the running of 20 of the country’s most high-profile cultural institutions to foreign candidates.

But the reforms are now being rolled back under Italy’s populist coalition, which came to power last summer. And there is a feeling among some of the foreign museum directors that in a climate of growing nationalism and nativism, the changes are aimed at them.

“A lot of people here in Italy think that museums should be managed by Italians," said Peter Aufreiter,…

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