Down Pompeii? The ruin of Italy's cultural heritage

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From ancient Rome to Renaissance Florence, some of the world's greatest treasures are falling into neglect.

Collapses at the ancient site of Pompeii underline what experts have been warning for years: Italy's priceless cultural heritage is slowly but surely disintegrating and the famous archeological site's decay is a metaphor for the nation.

With chunks falling off Rome's Colosseum and the seemingly inexorable decline and fall of Venice, the world looks on anxiously to see if the rot can be stopped. Few countries have a greater wealth of cultural and archaeological marvels than Italy, but experts warn that few nations are as complacent about them.

Outrage greeted news last month of the collapse the 2,000-year-old House of the Gladiators at Pompeii. For years, art historians have complained that the archaeological site just south of Naples was falling to bits. Inevitably, opposition newspapers such as La Repubblica, called the collapse a "world scandal" and blamed the conservative government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for cutting funding – and putting "unqualified people" in charge of Italy's cultural heritage. For "unqualified people" read: Sandro Bondi, the widely criticised Berlusconi loyalist and Culture Minister.

"We're stunned when some walls fall down. But these are ruins not systematically maintained, so the miracle is that so few of them collapse," said Andrea Carandini, a world-renowned archaeologist who leads a panel of professional consultants in the Cultural Ministry. Even some members of the government were alarmed. Roberto Cecchi, undersecretary at the Culture Ministry, said there had been no effective, continuous maintenance at Pompeii in half a century.

He admitted that ad hoc measures, such as the appointment of commissioners – a trick Mr Bondi repeated on Thursday this week in face of mounting anger after fresh collapses – were no substitute for the constant monitoring worthy of a world treasure. Mr Bondi insists that decades of neglect and poor management, rather a paucity of funds, are to blame.

But it is not just Pompeii that is crumbling. In September this year three large chunks of mortar fell off the Colosseum in Rome. Last spring, a large part of the now underground complex of Nero's fabled Golden Palace in the capital collapsed. And experts say the state of the Palatine Hill, where Rome's ancient leaders built their palaces, is looking increasingly precarious.

Giovanna Melandri, the Culture Minister from 1998 to 2001 for the centre-left government of Massimo D'Alema, said lack of funding is directly linked to the problems. She said: "We doubled the budget on arts and culture in two years. There was a national plan for restoration – of sites large and small. That all stopped with the first Berlusconi government. It was ridiculous of them. Investing in culture creates wealth; economic wealth through tourism, employment and spiritual wealth."

Like many, she believes that Mr Berlusconi, the mogul who brought dumbed-down television to the masses, was not just indifferent but repelled by state spending on culture.

Professor Clementina Panella, an archeologist at Rome's La Sapienza University, said that a more intelligent management of Italy's historic sites is also vital. She said: "Having millions of visitors just stamping around Pompeii or Venice each year causes its own destruction. Tourists need to be directed to other less-known places."

But this would require national planning – and money. The lack of state financial support seems perverse given that Italy earns so much from foreign tourism on account of its heritage. France, which has rather less to preserve and restore, spends 1 per cent of its GDP on culture compared with just 0.2 per cent in Italy. Restoration experts and engineers frequently note that even economically hamstrung Greece does a better job of caring for its antiquities; despite the severe economic crisis, it continues with painstaking restoration work on the Acropolis.

Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy's respected business newspaper, said the only solution for Pompeii was a private sponsor, which would be allowed to place its logos at the entrance. "Precisely because it belongs to all humanity, its management should be taken away from a state that has shown itself incapable of protecting it," the newspaper said. Currently, there are conflicting reports on whether businessman Diego della Valle, the man behind the Tod's footwear brand, will provide £20m to fund the clean-up and restoration of the Colosseum.

But the importance of Italy's culture heritage is such that it raises the vexed question: to whom does it belong? Some art experts have insisted that international action is needed to ensure the treasures are preserved for everyone to see.

A piqued mayor of Venice recently told a group of international grandees from the worlds of art and architecture to mind their own business after they accused him of allowing a rash of billboard advertisements to "grotesquely deface" the lagoon city.

"Perhaps these illustrious personalities from the salons of London and New York should come to Venice to see how well we're restoring and administrating the city," Mayor Giorgio Orsoni said.

"These days public money is tight. I would be very happy to accept donations, if they're willing to give them."

So who should pay for the upkeep of Italy, the giant open-air museum? Mr Berlusconi's government would say: "not the tax payer." Ms Melandri, a member of the parliamentary culture commission, said that while public-private partnerships and international funding should be welcomed, primary responsibility for preserving Italian culture falls to the Italian state: "It's our greatest asset."

And it is not only the high-profile sites such as Venice and Pompeii that need protecting. Across the country, there are hundreds or thousands of other smaller sites, or single buildings being left to rot, from landmark 20th century rationalist factories in Turin to Norman churches in Sicily.

La Repubblica newspaper recently called on its readers to flag neglected landmarks in their areas and campaign for their restoration. Pompeii, the newspaper said, in its cultural importance – and criminal neglect – stood as a metaphor for all of Italy.

Cultural commentators note it is not good enough to blame the current government or politicians. Carlo Petrini, the Italian founder and president of the Slow Food movement 20 years ago in opposition to the concept of fast food, and specifically to the prospect of McDonald's opening a branch near the Spanish Steps in Rome, says Italians need to take responsibility for themselves. "It's useless pointing fingers because ultimately we're all responsible," he said. "If it's true that the country is for everyone, then we're all guilty. For decades we've been violating it without thought."

Some Italians will admit that there is a sense that familiarity breeds contempt particularly in the south where ancient monuments and antiquities seem virtually two-penny in some areas. But should Italy's marvels finally collapse or disintegrate for good they can never be replaced. And the massive economic benefits that cultural tourism bring to Italy will surely die with them.

Venice

"The Floating City" is made up of 117 islands off Italy's Adriatic coast which are gradually sinking. Rising sea levels threaten to drown the city lauded as one of the world's most romantic destinations, while the huge numbers of tourists (an average of 50,000 flood the city per day) are causing constant wear-and-tear to its galleries, churches and monuments.

Rome

Boasting some of the most celebrated ancient monuments in the world, the Eternal City attracts over nine million tourists ever year. But in May, three chunks of mortar fell off the 2,000-year-old Colosseum just months after one of the most serious ceiling collapses at the Emperor Nero's Golden Palace in the past 50 years.

Milan

Among the fashion capital's many historic monuments is the famous 14th-century cathedral, or "Duomo", which recently underwent a five-year restoration project costing €20m (£17m). Experts say that damage from air pollution and pigeon droppings make further repairs necessary,at a cost of €6m-€8m.

Florence

The Tuscan city is home to the celebrated 16th century Uffizi art gallery. However, a senior figure in Italy's oldest environmental lobby group, Italia Nostra, told the Irish Times that the landmark is "dirty, smelly, and there are certain rooms where, when it rains, the water just runs down the wall".

Pompeii

Designated a Unesco World Heritage site, the Roman city of Pompeii was preserved by volcanic ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. In the last two months, several walls in the 2,000-year-old complex have crumbled owing to water damage, and in November the House of Gladiators collapsed.

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