A beautiful cathedral in Sicily is collapsing through bureaucratic inertia. Sadly, it's a typical Italian story
Behind bars: scaffolding props up much of the town centre

Noto is a jewel of Sicilian Baroque, a magical town of honey- golden stone whose fine churches, ornate palaces, airy squares and elegant public balustrades are one of the great finds for the inquisitive traveller.

Tucked away in a valley 20 miles inland from Siracusa, it is well off the mass tourism beat and offers up its charms with a refreshingly innocent enthusiasm. It is also failing to pieces. A structural survey in 1986 concluded that much of the town centre was on the brink of collapse. Monasteries, churches and museums were closed and hidden behind walls of scaffolding. Money was poured in to shore up the town's rickety foundations, but nothing much seemed to get done. A medium-sized earthquake followed in 1990, and again funds were set aside to repair the damage and save the town from further collapse. There was much sound and fury in the local press and in regional government, but nothing happened. One night last year, with the long fruitless wait for restoration work becoming desperate, the cupola of the cathedral of San Nicolo caved in.

This time the outcry extended well beyond Sicily to the national government and to bodies such as Unesco and the EU. For the third time in a decade, emergency funding was set aside and promises made to patch up Noto's artistic heritage.

WORK HAS only just begun to clear the rubble piled up in the cathedral nave - and even this much is being considered a major achievement. The dome, looking like the shard of a half-devoured Easter egg, is still exposed to the heavens and the cathedral floor is sodden from the winter rains. The building, far from being safeguarded, has been fought over by bureaucrats whose snail-like efforts to restart the restoration effort have so far done much harm and very little good. The architects, engineers, church officials and art historians clamouring to get on with the job have had to negotiate a minefield of public offices, narrow-minded power games and absurd procedural regulations to get as far as they have.

The earliest Noto can hope to see rebuilding begin on the cathedral is the start of the next millennium, by which time further calamities may have made the town even more fragile. "Thirty-eight billion lire (pounds 14m) has been spent on the centre of Noto over the years. Where has all the money gone? Why are none of our buildings open?" rages the town's chief tourism official, Corrado Spicuglia.

To answer his questions one must knock on the doors of the dizzyingly numerous public authorities involved in the saga: the Sicilian regional government, the national prefect responsible for Noto, the civil engineering office of the province of Siracusa, the office responsible for the province's cultural heritage, the town council and the public prosecutors' office which officially sequestered the cathedral after the collapse to try to determine the cause of the disaster and establish any criminal responsibility for it.

Each party gives self-serving excuses for the delays, descending into legalistic explanations for its inactivity and seeking for all it is worth to nudge the accusing finger in someone else's direction. This attitude, of course, is less than helpful. "We can't wait until the cathedral falls down altogether to say that we wanted to do something, but the law did not allow it," Mr Spicuglia said.

The story of Noto offers a dismal insight into why Italy so often fails to get to grips with its problems, particularly in the downtrodden, backward south, and helps explain why its artistic heritage has become so accident- prone. Similar bureaucratic nightmares are dogging La Fenice, the Venetian opera house which burned down last year but has yet to be worked on. They will no doubt trip up restoration efforts in Turin, where the Chapel of the Shroud and the Palazzo Reale were severely damaged by fire last weekend.

THE CORE problem is that decisions in Italy are rarely taken by those best placed to make them, but are subject to a system of hierarchies in which power, not efficient problem-solving, is the main consideration.

All the money earmarked for Noto - 600 billion lire after the 1990 earthquake and another 20 billion following the collapse of the cupola - has gone from Rome to the regional government in Palermo, which then has responsibility for passing it further down the chain. The parties most interested in getting things moving - the town council and the church - have neither the means nor the power to make their voices heard and are forced to beg for indulgence from those higher up the pecking order.

The disbursement procedure is dominated by political rather than practical considerations and open to all kinds of abuse. The region took three years to approve an initial list of projects after the earthquake, and another two to release the first funds, by which time Noto cathedral was three weeks away from collapse. Meanwhile attention was distracted by the anti-corruption drive launched by the judiciary in 1992-93 that brought Italy's entire political structure to its knees. Public works projects ground to a halt and a power vacuum was created as politicians at all levels, including Noto's town council, were swept out of office.

"Paradoxically things are much harder now because public offices are so terrified of being punished for any mistakes they make that they prefer not to sign anything at all," said the priest in charge of Noto cathedral, Don Salvatore Bellomia.

In Siracusa, the provincial offices for civil engineering and cultural heritage are barely 100 yards apart but both insist on using the inefficient postal system to talk to each other. Crucial letters have been known to take more than a month to make their way down the street.

To start clearing away the rubble and analysing it for clues to the cause of the collapse, project leaders had to be selected by the government prefect and their proposals approved by both the cultural heritage office and the civil engineering office. That process took up most of last year. "It doesn't help that the provincial offices are at war with each other other their respective responsibilities, which are defined rather vaguely by the law," lamented Roberto De Benedictis, the engineer in charge of the project. By Christmas, with just one bell tower and the remains of the cupola secured with scaffolding, there was concern that rainfall could cause further structural damage. The prefect was given exceptional powers by Rome to take appropriate measures. Not being an expert, he delegated the task to the cultural heritage office.

The obvious solution was to prop up the crypt with scaffolding, but this would have meant deferring to the civil engineers. Refusing to be upstaged, the cultural heritage office took the extraordinary step of filling the crypt with cement, smothering valuable tombs and leaving church authorities aghast.

"Once the cultural heritage people got their hands on the cathedral they didn't want to let go. It's purely a question of power," Don Bellomia said.

To give the bureaucrats their due, Noto has been fraught with problems throughout its history. The ancient settlement, Noto Antica, was flattened by an earthquake in 1693 and its modern incarnation built in a hurry over the next half-century. Noto's Baroque masters - Rosario Gagliardi, Paolo Labisi and Vincenzo Sinatra - may have displayed extraordinary flair but their builders cut all kinds of corners on masonry and cementing the monuments together.

Little restoration work took place for two centuries. When new roads were cut in the late 19th century they exposed many of the monuments' foundations to the air and weakened the structure of the whole town.

IN THE 1960s, it was decided to get rid of Noto's sloping roofs for fear that an earthquake would destroy them. But the flat roofs which replaced them were far less efficient at draining rain water and the town's buildings became damper and damper.

The restorers thus have a lot of catching up to do, as well as the worst possible conditions in which to get the job done. No restoration project can be so much as proposed until the rubble is cleared away (no earlier than September). The project leaders, who will include Mr De Benedictis, will then have eight months to come up with a detailed plan. That, in turn, will be subject to bureaucratic checks that will take another six months to a year to complete.

Only then will Noto be able to look forward with any certainty to the day its cathedral has a cupola again. "All this would be much easier if we could take the decision ourselves," Mr Spicuglia said. "All these delays have a very negative effect. If your town is falling to pieces, you eventually begin to fall to pieces, too."