The collapse of the House of the Gladiators in Pompeii, Italy, was blamed on a failure to keep the drainage system working. Heavy rains soaked the walls and brought them down.
The collapse of the House of the Gladiators in Pompeii, Italy, was blamed on a failure to keep the drainage system working. Heavy rains soaked the walls and brought them down. Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
A 2,000-year-old building at the ancient site of Pompeii collapsed in rubble several weeks ago, only months after a piece of Rome's Colosseum fell to the ground and the roof of the home of Emperor Nero crumbled.
The collapses made world headlines and triggered criticism of sharp budget cuts and charges of neglect of Italy's vast archaeological heritage.
Pompeii, a UNESCO world heritage site, was destroyed in A.D. 79 by a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that killed thousands and buried the city under 20 feet of ash. But the ash also helped preserve Pompeii's treasures, providing precious information about life in the ancient world.
Every year, Pompeii attracts 2.5 million visitors, and many come even on cold, rainy days in winter. Walking along the ancient Roman road, visitors see many houses propped up by beams, some of them rotting.
A 'Disneyland' In Center Of Pompeii?
Luigi Necco, a journalist and archaeological expert, says Pompeii is in desperate need of constant maintenance.
Steel scaffolding and the roof weigh on the original 2,000-year-old walls in Pompeii, Italy. This house is part of a multimedia tour of the ancient city.
Steel scaffolding and the roof weigh on the original 2,000-year-old walls in Pompeii, Italy. This house is part of a multimedia tour of the ancient city. Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
"Pompeii could crumble right now," he says. "It's always in danger — from rain, from the sun when its walls dry up, and when the wind blows mercilessly."
Budget cuts led to a drastic drop in the number of guards, so it's easy to sneak into the houses and get a glimpse of ancient frescoed walls that are exposed to the elements. Made with humble local stone, these homes were not built to last 2,000 years — all the more need for routine maintenance.
But November's collapse of the House of the Gladiators was due to a failure to keep the drainage system working, experts say. Heavy rains soaked the walls and brought them down.
Necco blames the government.
Economics Minister Giulio Tremonti said "you can't eat culture" as he drastically cut ministry funds. Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's people, Necco says, have turned Pompeii into a flashy profit-maker, staging high-profile concerts and a gimmicky multimedia tour.
"Why this Disneyland here in the center of Pompeii," Necco asks, "the center of a human tragedy of 2,000 years ago? Why?"
The answer, he says, is "disdain for culture, disdain for past, disdain for history."
The Berlusconi government is widely accused of crassly exploiting Italy's artistic heritage, not conserving it. The culture minister appointed a former McDonald's manager with no artistic expertise as his right-hand man.
The country with an unparalleled art heritage spends on culture only one-quarter of what France and Germany spend.
Seventeen of Italy's 19 superintendents of archaeological sites signed a letter protesting what they call the commercialization of Italy's cultural heritage.
Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, a former superintendent of Pompeii, quips: "Nobody goes to a carpenter for ... appendicitis."
"This government's focus on profiting from art has completely sidelined the experts, the only ones with knowledge of our heritage and who can help conserve it," he says.
The opposition is demanding the resignation of Culture Minister Sandro Bondi, but Bondi was defiant in Parliament. "This is not a morally and politically justified demand," Bondi said. "I do not deserve such treatment."
But Maria Pia Guermandi, an official at Italy's oldest environmentalist organization, Italia Nostra, says Italy lacks the desire and the ability to conserve its vast art heritage. She goes so far as to suggest that it be put under U.N. supervision.
"All outside help is needed," Guermandi says, "because we are no longer capable of administering our cultural patrimony."