Things fall apart in Italy, and not just the economy

Ancient architectural ruins are crumbling faster than ever due to austerity measures
Jamie Dettmer
08 Mar 2011, Pompeii, Italy --- Tourists walk past damaged areas of Pompeii.Nearly 4 months after the collapse of the House of the Gladiators and then of a wall at the House of the Moralist, Pompeii still faces neglet and mismanagement.Now the Italian government has begun to investigate the matter. Nine people are to be questioned, although Marcello Fiori, the emergency commissioner who was appointed to save the site in 2008, is conspicuously absent from the group.Those who will be grilled by the public prosecutor include the former superintendent of Naples and Pompeii, the site director who oversaw the waterproofing of the House of the Gladiators, the head of technical services at Pompeii, and an architect. The investigation will also examine Fiori’s administration, which ended in July, including its use of government funds, which many critics have seen as wasteful and ineffective. --- Image by © Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis
Alessandra Benedetti/Corbis

“What’s going to be left of Italy?” Priti Suri pondered as she joined a throng of tourists crowding one of Rome’s iconic monuments, the Colosseum, where stone fell from a wall in just the latest of many such incidents in recent years. Dodging re-enactors dressed as ancient Roman centurions and flitting past families haggling with street vendors over the price of plastic gladiator helmets and “I Love Rome” T-shirts, the Indian lawyer peered up at scaffolding erected around a chunk of this imposing amphitheatre in preparation for urgent repair work. “I love history, and walking around Rome. I’m glad they’ve started to save the Colosseum—but what will happen to other monuments?” she asks.

As Italy retrenches in the face of the euro crisis, state authorities have economized on the budget devoted to preserving the nation’s heritage. The culture budget has been halved in the past six years; cracks are now literally showing in monuments across the country. Venice has long been sinking, of course, but now sites such as Pompeii and the Colosseum and buildings such as Florence’s Duomo are in troubling disrepair, with masonry regularly crashing down. The latest alarm came earlier this month when two massive chunks of marble fell from the facade of the Royal Palace of Caserta, near Naples. A testimony to Bourbon extravagance, the 1,200-room palace has long been a favourite location for Hollywood producers, standing in for the Vatican in the thriller Angels and Demons and appearing in Mission Impossible III and Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Last week, the tumbling masonry narrowly missed a family of day trippers. Alarmed curators say they need at least $9 million just to repair the iron clamps holding the eye-catching marble in front of the enormous building. “We are worried because the pieces that broke off come from areas restored just 30 years ago,” says curator Paola Raffaella David.

She isn’t the only curator concerned about what permanent damage will be wrought once the country has finished with public spending cuts and austerity—whenever that may be. In June, authorities had to rope off Rome’s baroque masterpiece, the Trevi Fountain, a backdrop movie buffs will recall from Federico Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, after chunks of stone and stucco fell from ornate reliefs. Workmen had to remove other fragile parts of the cornice from the monument commissioned by Pope Clement XII in 1732 depicting Neptune in a chariot being pulled by two horses. “I suppose if you don’t have the money, there’s nothing much you can do,” sighed retired salesman George Baker as he threw a coin into the fountain. “I don’t want to sound hard-hearted but maybe they should have been a bit more careful with their money,” says the silver-haired native of Charlotte, N.C. “It is all a matter of priorities, isn’t it?”

As far as Italy’s Green Party is concerned, the Trevi Fountain is a priority. It has launched a campaign against “dangerous cuts” to the preservation funding of Rome’s monuments, with party president Angelo Bonelli asking Romans to “tip us off to sites that are not being taken care of.” Highlighting the neglect of the city’s architectural treasures, he listed other endangered Roman sites—such as the Domus Aurea from Nero’s palace, which has been closed to visitors since a roof collapsed. This summer, restoration work started on the Colosseum, thanks only to the intervention of the millionaire owner of the Italian shoemaker Tod’s.

Italy boasts more UNESCO World Heritage sites than any other country, in a time of austerity that’s a financial burden almost too great to bear. Pompeii has lost both a gladiators’ barracks and the House of Chaste Lovers, which was only excavated 25 years ago. Both collapsed from modern neglect after having survived the Vesuvius explosion of 79 A.D.

Cultural advocates say that Italy’s preservation budget should be protected from cuts, arguing that culture is a core business for a country that sees about eight per cent of its GDP generated from tourism. While monuments in Rome may yet be saved, those in more rural sites are unlikely to be so fortunate. In March, the poor state of an open-air, Etruscan-era theatre in northern Lazio was highlighted by an investigative television show, Striscia la Notizia. One of the presenters remarked as the camera panned over a riot of weeds: “The ancient Romans would have put on plays here: comedies, tragedies. The tragedy today is the state of this archaeological site.”