Crash goes the Colosseum

The country’s historic landmarks are crumbling, and critics say government just doesn’t seem to care

Crash goes the Colosseum

Ciro De Luca/Reuters; Andrew Medichini/AP

Italy’s cultural heritage is under threat like never before. In November, two collapses at the archaeological site of Pompeii sent off alarm bells among experts, who see the endangered wonder, a UNESCO world heritage site, as a symbol for the decay eating away at virtually every historic piece of Italy. The 2,000-year-old frescoed House of Gladiators was the first to collapse, followed weeks later by a 12-m wall protecting the House of the Moralist.

While Culture Minister Sandro Bondi cautioned against “useless alarmism,” experts worry their worst fears are coming true. “Negligence and a lack of the most basic maintenance is causing irreversible damage to our architectural patrimony,” explains Tsao Cevoli, head of the National Archaeological Association. A culture ministry official confirmed there hasn’t been any systemic maintenance at Pompeii in the last half-century.

It isn’t the only site in disarray after years of neglect. Large chunks of mortar are falling off Rome’s Colosseum, while Nero’s fragile Golden House suffered an even worse fate. In March, heavy rains caused a 60-sq.-m section of the ceiling to collapse, damaging a gallery built by emperor Trajan, and leaving the building exposed to the elements. The situation was “one of extreme alarm,” warned the palace’s commissioner, Luciano Marchetti, who pleaded for immediate help.

Though tourists pump billions into the economy as they tramp around Italy exploring its treasures, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s government spends just 0.2 per cent of GDP on preservation and restoration of the nation’s treasures, compared to France’s one per cent. Recent cuts to the cultural budgets have slashed even those meagre allotments.

Last May, the National Archaeological Association created a risk map of endangered landmarks, including the Aurelian walls in the capital and the Roman ruins at Aquileia. When asked to pick the nation’s most endangered site, Alessandra Mottola Molfino of the environmental lobby group Italia Nostra singles out Bologna’s medieval towers, trapped in the middle of a rumbling busy intersection. “The towers’ stability really worries us,” she says. “Only St. Peter’s in Rome and the cathedral in Milan are safe, as they have dedicated workshops, which monitor the monuments and can intervene immediately.” Her organization notes that rain runs down some interior walls of Florence’s Uffizi gallery, stuffed with priceless Renaissance art.

A solution, of sorts, could come from private sponsors. This month, Diego Della Valle of the Tod’s footwear empire pledged $40 million toward urgent repairs to the Colosseum. Still, he intervened only after the city of Rome failed to get a single firm interested in sponsoring restoration work on the prestigious site. For other endangered buildings lacking the Colosseum’s fame, funding essential maintenance is a struggle. “The miracle,” frets Andrea Carandini, one of Italy’s leading archaeologists, “is that so few of them collapse.”

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