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Benetton cuts ties with photographer Toscani over Italy bridge remarks

By Elisa Anzolin and Giuseppe Fonte

By Elisa Anzolin and Giuseppe Fonte

MILAN/ROME (Reuters) - Italy's Benetton Group said on Thursday it has cut professional ties with Oliviero Toscani, the photographer behind the advertising campaign that helped make it a global brand in the 1980s, over remarks he made about a 2018 bridge collapse.

The collapse of the Morandi bridge in Genoa, operated by a unit of the Benetton family-controlled infrastructure group Atlantia <ATL.MI>, claimed 43 lives.

The disaster led to heavy criticism of the Benetton family and has triggered calls from lawmakers to revoke the group's motorway concession.

During an interview with state-owned Rai radio on Tuesday, Toscani was asked for his view about members of Italy's "Sardines" grassroots movement - which opposes the populism of far-right Italian leader Matteo Salvini - meeting members of the Benetton family. The meeting had been widely criticised by politicians and the media due to the Benetton's involvement in the bridge tragedy.

Toscani appeared to suggest he didn't have a problem with the meeting and also said: "Who cares if a bridge falls down?" when asked to comment on a photograph of the Benettons with members of the Sardines.

Toscani subsequently issued a tweet saying that he was sorry about his "extrapolated and confused words," adding that he was upset about the tragedy, like all Italians.

The Benetton Group and founder and Chairman Luciano Benetton said in a statement that they distanced themselves from Toscani's remarks.

"Benetton and the whole company renew their sincere sympathy towards the families of the victims and all those involved in this terrible tragedy".


POLITICAL BACKLASH

The comments from world-acclaimed photographer Toscani sparked new criticism from leading members of Italy's ruling 5-Star Movement, the most vocal group within the ruling coalition against the Benettons and Atlantia.

Vito Crimi, leader of the 5-Star, urged the government to avoid any hesitation and push ahead in stripping Atlantia's unit Autostrade per l'Italia of its motorway concession, which accounts for around one third of its core earnings.

Toscani was also criticised by far-right League lawmaker and Genoa native, Edoardo Rixi, who for the first time signalled a possible shift in the position of his party, which in the past had adopted a less aggressive stance towards Atlantia.

"We'll see what the government has to say (on the licence) and we'll decide", Rixi told Reuters.

A decree passed at the end of last year made it easier and less costly for the government to cancel the valuable concession.

The measures must be ratified by the end of February and analysts are on the watch for any signals of a softening of the final version that will be approved in parliament.

However, two government sources of the ruling centre-left Democratic party (PD) told Reuters late on Wednesday that Rome had no intention of backtracking on the legislation despite some members of the coalition remaining opposed to the new rules.

Small centrist Italia Viva party, led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi and whose support is key to maintain the government's parliamentary majority, says the decree would scare away foreign investors.

Sources from the PD say the government should use the new rules as leverage into forcing Atlantia to accept tough changes to the licence and a cut in toll-road tariffs rather than deciding on an outright revocation of the concessions.


(Writing by Francesca Landini; Editing by Susan Fenton)