February 16, 2006

Rome struggles to rescue its ancient Palatine ruins

By Silvia Aloisi

ROME (Reuters) - It's one of the world's most famous
archaeological sites but it's also, literally, falling apart.

Experts fear the remains of Rome's Palatine Hill, where
emperors built lavish residences, are becoming dangerously
unstable and pose an increasing risk to the four million
tourists who visit the central Rome site each year.

Years of neglect and poor preservation mean that many
buildings in the city's open-air ancient forum are gradually
eroding, while water leaks from increasingly heavy rains are
undermining their foundations.

"We have a sick patient with many diseases. We need to find
out which ones are the most serious and intervene," Angelo
Bottini, head of Rome's Archaeological Office, said on

The alarm over the Palatine was raised last November when a
15-meter stretch of wall, which experts had considered solid,
fell over at night. If it had fallen during the day, the path
would have been packed with tourists.

Since then, Italy's culture ministry has ordered a
full-blown survey of the ruins, most of them more than 2,000
years old. Initial findings presented on Thursday showed a
catalog of crumbling galleries, cracked walls and
precarious-looking blocks of stone.

"The idea is to identify the parts that need repairs more
urgently but in the longer term we hope to move away from
one-off emergency interventions and toward a proper
preservation scheme," Bottini said.

The main problem is money. Officials estimate that a full
restoration of the Palatine area would cost 130 million euros
($154.2 million) over 10 years and it's just one of Rome's
dilapidated archaeological treasures that need attention.

In December, the nearby Palace of Nero had to be closed for
repairs as experts feared its frescoed walls could collapse.

After steadily cutting cultural funds over the past five
years, Italy's cash-strapped government earmarked in its 2006
budget 60 million euros over the next 15 years for all of the
country's ancient sites.

"It is clear that at the moment there aren't enough
resources in the pipeline," said Culture Minister Rocco
Buttiglione, who risks losing his job if the center-left
opposition wins an April 9 general election.

"The next government will have the task of filling the
gap," he said.

Together with the Colosseum, the Palatine is Rome's biggest
earning ancient site, with annual revenues from ticket sales at
some 25 million euros.

Several other sites are free but Buttiglione and Bottini
said that might have to change, adding that charging an
entrance fee for all of Rome's monuments was the price to pay
to ensure they were properly looked after.