Rome's crumbling ruins are a threat to tourists, says study

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The Independent Online

Some of the most venerable of Rome's ancient ruins are in need of emergency treatment if they are not to pose a mortal danger to the millions of tourists who visit them every year.

They include the ruins of palaces where emperors lounged to watch chariots tearing round the Circus Maximus, the house of Julius Caesar and the labyrinthine Golden Dome of Nero, every inch of which was once covered with gold and mosaics.

A survey of the condition of Rome's ancient ruins was commissioned by Italy's Ministry of Culture in November after a wall on the Palatine Hill, the first of Rome's legendary seven hills to be built on, collapsed.

Presenting his initial findings, Angelo Bottini, head of Rome's Archaeological Office said yesterday: "We have a sick patient with many diseases. We need to find out which ones are the most serious and intervene."

Rome's ancient treasures are in remarkable condition considering their extreme age. Many of the structures on the Palatine Hill have survived the millennia with the loss of decorative detail but with their soaring walls and thunderous arches still fully intact. The collapse of the wall in November cannot be laid at the feet of the ancient engineers because it was a supporting wall dating only from the 19th century.

But the ruins are clearly in peril. Although they are largely responsible for the city's vast annual inflow of foreign tourists; the Palatine Hill, the city's biggest draw along with the Colosseum, earns some €25m (£17m) per year, stingy and short-sighted administrations have, year by year, starved them of the funds they need to ensure Rome lives up to its "Eternal City" tag.

"We need to do the same as Greece did 30 years ago with the Acropolis," commented Carlo Giavarini, a conservation engineer involved in drawing up a rescue plan, back in November when the alert was sounded. The problems in Athens, he went on, "were a lot less than ours. The first thing we have to do at the Palatine is understand how to divert the water that is undermining the walls. The ancient Romans knew how to do it, but not us."

No one was hurt by the collapsing wall but it forced Italy's culture bureaucrats, burdened with looking after the largest collection of important ancient buildings in the world, to contemplate emergency action.

The collapse was followed in December by the closure of the Domus Aurea, the legendary and labyrinthine Golden Palace of Nero because of fears that its walls, too, could collapse.

The palace, which enjoyed a good view of the jewel-encrusted 160ft statue of himself that Nero built where the Colosseum now stands, was only rediscovered in the 15th century, and was opened to the public six years ago.

The budget of the Culture Ministry has been cut during Silvio Berlusconi's years in power. The previous minister warned that if cuts were implemented it could mean the closure of Florence's Uffizzi Gallery, one of the most famous art museums in the world. In its 2006 budget, the ministry got a grand total of €60m to take care of all the country's ancient sites - to be spread over 15 years.

The sum is inadequate: officials estimate that a full restoration of the Palatine area alone would cost €130m over 10 years.

Culture minister Rocco Buttiglione washed his hands of the problem. "It is clear at the moment there are not enough resources in the pipeline," he said. "The next government will have the task of filling the gap."