Crumbling Pompeii needs urgent attention

Last updated 15:30 16/12/2010
Pompeii
ROBERTO SALOMONE/AFP/GETTY

A policeman guards a Roman house where a wall collapsed in Pompeii.

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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 2000 ago in an eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

"The city is suffering and losing its pieces," said D'Alessio as he stood 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 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.

Last month the House of the Gladiator and a long retaining wall in the garden of the House of the Moralist collapsed.

The collapses sparked charges of official neglect by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's 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.

"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.

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

"In the last two years, the decisions regarding Pompeii have been made by politicians and not by experts," said Tsao Cevoli, president of the national association of archaeologists.

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.

"We must invest in regular maintenance. This does not attract attention but is very necessary," 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 says there have been seven collapses in a year but not all of them have received the publicity they deserved.

"The fact that there have been so many collapses in such a short period means that something serious is happening. These are very dangerous signs," he said at the site.

He said some €80 million were spent in the last two years for what he called "spectacular but not indispensible restorations" of single structures such as the second-century-BC Great Theatre.

"The minister is responsible for having chosen a management style at Pompeii that favoured appearance over substance. No expert would have done this. Technicians, restorers and archaeologists were denied any say in the matter," Cevoli said.

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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 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 1931 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."

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.

Judith Harris, author of the 2007 book Pompeii Awakened, said it would be important that sponsors let archaeologists do what they feel is necessary.

"There is no glamour in pigeon control and weed removal but but they are necessary," she said.

- Reuters

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