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Experts: Deficit Threatens Ancient Italian Treasures

  • Henry Ridgwell

Each year roughly 2.5 million tourists visit Pompeii. Described by archaeologists as the world’s most important window on the ancient world, the bustling Roman Empire town was buried under metres of ash when the nearby volcano, Mount Vesuvius, erupted in AD 79.

The buried ruins were discovered by accident 17 centuries later, with many villas, workshops and bathhouses found largely intact.

But following the October 2011 collapse of a wall in the preserved town - an eight-square-meter section crumbled after heavy rain - archaeologists warn that Italy's countless ancient monuments are at risk because of government budget cuts.

Tsao Cervoli, President of Italy National Association of Archaeologists, has worked extensively at Pompeii.

"We have received in the past few days and weeks new reports of antique structures collapsing in Pompeii," he says. "It happens every time funds become scarce."

A year earlier the famous House of the Gladiators collapsed, and Italy’s president has since called the recurring damage "a national disgrace."

Opposition politicians blame the former government of Silvio Berlusconi for cutting heritage maintenance grants from $40 million to $25 million (30 million euros to 19 million euros).

The European Union is offering to step in, and European Commission member Johannes Hahn visited Pompeii shortly after the wall collapse.

"We have an operational program for Italy named 'Cultural Heritage,' and a certain significant part of this budget will now be used, 105 million euros, to start work here in Pompeii," says Hahn.

But Cervoli, who criticizes Pompeii authorities for spending grants on marketing instead of maintenance, calls intermittent funding the wrong approach.

"What is needed is the same as for any owner of a house: regular maintenance to keep the house in good condition, not merely remembering every 20 or 30 years to intervene," he says.

In turn, authorities blame recent torrential rains for causing the damage. Storms recently damaged other famous monuments, and underground areas of Rome’s Coliseum were flooded, causing some mortar fell from the walls. Parts of the Forum were also underwater, and Cervoli says funding cuts and a lack of maintenance are putting countless sites at risk.

"In the last few years there have been calls for emergency aid for the three most important historical sites in Italy: Pompeii, the Coliseum and the Uffizi in Florence," he says. "Just think, if these three famous sites are in a state of emergency… then what condition would you find all the other architectural and historic sites in Italy?"

With the nation’s economy in crisis, Cervoli fears the answer to that question will be revealed in coming months, with ever more frequent and serious damage to the country’s ancient heritage.