STEVE INSKEEP, host:
We have the latest coverage this morning on the fall of the Roman Empire. Who knew there would be breaking news on this subject? A 2,000-year-old building collapsed in Pompeii last month. Two more walls collapsed at the archaeological site yesterday. A few months before that, a chunk of Rome's Coliseum fell to the ground and the roof of the Emperor Nero's home crumbled away. NPR's Sylvia Poggioli has more from Pompeii.
SYLVIA POGGIOLI: Pompeii is a UNESCO world heritage site. Destroyed in 79 AD by a volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius that killed thousands, Pompeii was buried under 20 feet of ash. But the ash also helped preserve the citys treasures, providing precious information about life in the ancient world.
Every year, it attracts two and a half million visitors. Many come even on cold, rainy days like today. Walking along the ancient Roman road, visitors see many houses propped up by beams, some of them rotting. Luigi Necco, a journalist and archaeological expert, says Pompeii is in desperate need of constant maintenance.
Mr. LUIGI NECCO (Archaeological expert): (Through translator) Pompeii could crumble right now. Its always in danger from rain, from the sun when its walls dry up, when the winds blow mercilessly.
POGGIOLI: Budget cuts led to a drastic drop in the number of guards, so its easy to sneak into the houses and get a glimpse of ancient frescoed walls brutally exposed to the elements. Made with humble local stone, these homes were not built to last 2000 years. All the more need for routine maintenance.
But the collapse of the house of the gladiators, experts agree, was due to failure to keep the drainage system working. Heavy rains soaked the walls and brought them down.
Necco blames the government. The economics minister said you cant eat culture as he drastically cut ministry funds. Berlusconis people, Necco says, have turned Pompeii into a flashy profit-maker, staging high-profile concerts and a gimmicky multimedia tour.
Mr. NECCO: Why have this Disneyland here in the center of Pompeii, the center of a tragedy, human tragedy, over 2000 years ago? Why?
POGGIOLI: Necco has this answer.
Mr. NECCO: Disdain for the culture, disdain for the past, disdain for the history.
POGGIOLI: The Berlusconi government is widely accused of crassly exploiting Italy's artistic heritage, not conserving it. The culture minister appointed a former McDonalds manager with no artistic expertise as his right-hand man. And the country with an unparalleled art heritage spends, on culture, only one quarter of what France and Germany spend.
Seventeen of Italy's 19 superintendants of archaeological sites signed a letter protesting what they call the commercialization of Italy's cultural heritage. Pietro Giovanni Guzzo is a former superintendant of Pompeii.
Mr. PIETRO GIOVANNI GUZZO (Former superintendant, Pompeii): (Through translator) Nobody goes to a carpenter for an appendectomy. This governments focus on profiting from art has completely sidelined the experts, the only ones with knowledge of our heritage and who can help conserve it.
POGGIOLI: 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. And she goes so far as to suggest it be put under supervision of the United Nations.
Ms. MARIA PIA GUERMANDI (Italia Nostra): (Foreign language spoken)
POGGIOLI: All outside help is needed, Guermandi says, because we are no longer capable of administering our cultural patrimony.
Sylvia Poggioli, NPR News.
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