December 12, 2005

Nero’s palace in Rome closes for safety reasons

By Silvia Aloisi

ROME (Reuters) - The palace of Nero, one of Rome's most
popular tourist sites, risks falling apart and must close for
emergency repairs, Italy's culture minister said on Monday.

Rocco Buttiglione, who is fighting to stave off planned
cuts to his ministry's 2006 budget, said leaking water meant
bits of the palace's frescoed walls could collapse. He said the
palace would close from Tuesday for at least two years.

"We cannot guarantee the safety of both staff and
visitors," Buttiglione told reporters.

"Rome is a huge, open-air museum and we are managing it
with reduced personnel and budget constraints. This is not a
technical problem, it's a political one. Italy must decide if
it wants to preserve its immense cultural heritage," he said.

The Domus Aurea, or House of Gold, was Nero's monument to
himself, built with no expense spared following the great fire
of AD 64 which destroyed half of the city.

The palace was so-named because of the gold leaf covering
some of its walls, a colossal gold statue of Nero himself which
dominated the complex and a play of light from its unusual
window designs which gave it a golden sheen.

After 20 years of excavation and restoration, 32 of its 150
rooms were opened to the public in 1999. The palace lies next
to the Colosseum and attracts on average 1,000 visitors a day.

Buttiglione said 5 million euros ($6 million) were needed
for urgent repairs but the ministry's archaeologists said a
full-blown restoration of the palace and the surrounding area
would cost 130 million euros over 10 years.

Buttiglione's ministry faces cuts of 48 million euros, or
about 10 percent of its running expenses, in the 2006 budget
which Italy's cash-strapped government must push through
parliament by the end of the year.

"Those cuts are unacceptable. I appeal to the government
and parliament to give us the minimum resources not to increase
our offer but to decently preserve what we have," he said.

Checks on the state of Rome's eroding archaeological sites
were intensified after a 50 ft stretch of wall in the city's
ancient forum collapsed last month, crumbling onto a walkway
that leads to the Arch of Titus and the Colosseum.

The wall, which experts had considered solid, fell apart at
night. Officials said that if it had collapsed during opening
hours, the path would have been packed with tourists.

Angelo Bottini, head of Rome's Archaeological Office, said
investigations were still underway at the site and that there
were also problems at the Terme di Caracalla -- one of ancient
Rome's massive bath complexes.