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Pompeii collapses spark worry and outrage

posted 13 Dec 2010, 05:19 by Mpelembe   [ updated 13 Dec 2010, 05:21 ]

As the Italian government seems to be crumbling away so too are some of Italy's archaeological sites, sparking concern that lack of government attention and money could be letting the country's cultural heritage fall into ruin.

All roads lead to Rome, an old saying goes. Travellers today, however, may not end up in the eternal city, but instead encounter a crumbling capital

As Italy's famed archaeological sites appear to be falling to pieces, the country's divided government is coming under attack.

Last month, two walls crumbled at the ruins of Pompeii, the latest of four collapses in a month at the 2,000-year-old Roman-era site whose decay has become an embarrassment for Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's government.

The collapses sparked charges of official neglect by the centre-right government and calls for the resignation of Culture Minister Sandro Bondi, who has imposed cuts to arts spending as part of austerity measures.

Pompeii mayor Claudio D'Alessio does not want to go down in history linked with Pliny the Younger, the Roman who chronicled the destruction of the ancient city nearly 2,000 ago in an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Speaking to Reuters near the Via dell'Abbondanza, the main street leading from the columns of the Forum in the ancient city that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, D'Alessio said the city is suffering and loosing its pieces. It is time to act, he said.

"We don't have the luxury of waiting. We can't wait for other collapses. We need an immediate intervention to heal years of delays and neglect," D'Alessio said.

D'Alessio is worried not only because he loves culture. He knows that the economy of his modern city of 25,000 people relies heavily on tourists who come from all over the world to see the famed archaeological site.

Like many other cultural heritage sites in Italy, ancient Pompeii is an engine of local economic growth that supports hotels, restaurants, guides, transportation and travel agencies.

Pompeii advocates have accused Bondi of being ultimately responsible for the decline of the sprawling site, which remained buried and undiscovered for almost 1700 years under ash until excavations began in 1748.

The president of Italy's national association of archaeologists, Tsao Cevoli, and other critics say that under Bondi's administration, the culture ministry has concentrated on spectacular events rather than regular maintenance.

For example, money was invested in a hologram tour where the image of Julius Polybius, a nobleman of ancient Pompeii, guides visitors around a 3-D virtual version of his sumptuous villa.

"The problem is that in the last two years, the decisions regarding the conservation (of Pompeii) have been made by politicians and not by experts, and the politicians have been interested in a management style that favours more immediate results, ones that are more short-term, of great appearance and look great. They have been more interested in the marketing of the site than focusing in real restoration," said Cevoli, adding that removing weeds from roofs and walls is not as enticing as light shows and holograms but it does stop water infiltration.

Cevoli said some 80 million euros were spent in the last two years for what he called "spectacular but not indispensable restorations" of single structures such as the second-century-BC Great Theatre but without a systematised approach, sight of the overall situation had been lost, resulting in water damages within the structures.

"The problem is that there have been about seven collapses in one year. That has not happened in previous years, which makes us concerned. And we are worried because it is a warning sign. The fact that there have been so many collapses in such a short period, especially in the last few months since the summer, means that something serious is happening at the site," he added..

Pompeii, then home to about 13,000 people, was buried under ash, pumice pebbles and dust by the force of an eruption equivalent to some 40 of today's atomic bombs. Two-thirds of the 66-hectare (165-acre) town has been uncovered.

What makes Pompeii rare, if not unique, is that it was frozen in time, offering a total picture of the ancient world. Pliny the Younger witnessed the cataclysm 1,931 years ago from Misenum (today's Miseno) on the northern shore of the Bay of Naples. He wrote: "A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood."

Visitors touring the large site emphasised its importance both for Italy, as well as internationally.

"It is unfortunate because it represents the history of Italy, which after so many ups and downs has been reunited and so to see these structures destroyed already in the year 2010 is a real pity, not knowing how to preserve our cultural heritage. It really is very sad, we are known for lots of bad things in the south, but at least looking after our cultural heritage, in my opinion, would be to our advantage," Elisabetta Testa from Sicily said.

"I think they should take care more, you know, like, because it's not just for Italy, I think it's for the whole world, you know. We did study this at school when we were children and we were always thinking about coming here and see you know, the people who were preserved in rock and everything. I think they should take care more so that everyone, even my children and my grandchildren could come and also study as I did," Brazilian tourist Clarissa Crespo said.

Some have said the only solution to saving Pompeii is to privatise it.

"Precisely because it belongs to all humanity, its management should be taken away from a state that has shown itself incapable of protecting it," Italy's leading business newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, said in a scathing editorial.

But privatisation of culture is still a politically loaded subject in Italy, so most observers see a mix of state ownership and some private sponsorship as the best solution.