Pompeii under threat as Italy struggles to maintain sites
By Katie Kahle Oct 26, 2011, 3:06 GMT
Rome - The partial crumbling of a wall in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii last week has caused serious embarrassment to the government of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.
The damage came less than a year after the spectacular collapse of a gladiator house on the site.
International concern has been mounting that not enough is being done to protect Italy's historical sites, as the heavily indebted country struggles to cope with recession and the effects of the global economic crisis.
Culture Minister Giancarlo Galan tried to calm critics, promising that Pompeii - a UNESCO World Heritage site - will be the 'utmost priority' for his ministry.
Galan was appointed to the post after the previous minister, Sandro Bondi, resigned in the wake of the collapse of the gladiator house. Another wall also suffered damage.
Bondi initially survived a no-confidence vote over accusations of neglect and mismanagement of the site in January, but finally resigned in March.
Concern over Pompeii was revived on Friday, when a portion of its external walls near the Porta di Nola gate collapsed. Several cubic metres of rubble are now all that remains of the structure, according to media reports.
Experts attribute the collapse - as well as that of the gladiator house - to heavy and persistent autumnal rains.
Pompeii was buried by ash when the nearby Mount Vesuvius volcano erupted in AD 79. The disaster left the city superbly preserved until its accidental rediscovery in 1749.
However, a lack of state funds has left what is probably Italy's most important excavation site in danger of sustaining continuous damage, in a development that Berlusconi's critics see as symbolizing the decadence of the entire country.
The only way the 66-hectare site can be secured for the future is through constant high-level maintenance, experts agree.
A plan approved by the Culture Ministry has already been handed over to the relevant authorities - but safeguarding the site requires money.
Galan, who is set to visit Pompeii on Wednesday with European Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn, is looking for the EU to unblock funding for the site.
The Italian plan for Pompeii cannot be implemented without an injection of 105 million euros (145 million dollars), which have already been pledged by the EU, said Teresa Cinquantaquattro, superintendent of the site.
She also requested extra staff.
'There will be 20 to 25 people coming (to Pompeii) by the end of the year, with another 20 coming in 2012,' Galan's under-secretary Riccardo Villari promised recently.
Yet the government has made similar promises before - without keeping them. Italian media describe the absent staff at Pompeii as 'victims of the financial crisis.'
Italy has the second-highest level of national debt in the eurozone after Greece. Austerity measures worth 100 billion euros that were approved in the summer did not touch the culture budget, but it had already been slashed several times before.
Italia Nostra, a private organization that works to protect Italy's historical and cultural heritage, has described the current situation as dramatic.
The laboratory in Pompeii responsible for restoring the site's frescoes only has three conservators, Italia Nostra said. There is also a shortage of security personnel, leaving parts of Pompeii completely unprotected, it warned.
Villari is now raising the prospect of a 'Save Pompeii' campaign, which would seek sponsors for the site, as was done with the Colosseum in Rome.