December 13, 2010

Pompeii Collapses Spark Criticism

Pompeii mayor Claudio D'Allessio does not want to go down in history linked with Pliny the Younger, the Roman who chronicled the destruction of the ancient city about 2,000 years ago in an eruption of Mount Vesuvius, according to a recent Reuters report.

"The city is suffering and losing its pieces," D'Alessio said in a speech as he stood near the Via dell' Abbondanza, the main street leading from the columns of the Forum in the ancient city that is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

D'Alessio knows that the economy of his modern city of 25,000 people relies heavily on tourists who come from all over the world to see the famed archaeological site.

The "House of the Gladiator" and a long retaining wall in the garden of the "House of the Moralist" collapsed last month.

The collapses sparked charges of official neglect by Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's center-right government and calls for the resignation of Culture Minister Sandro Bondi, who imposed cuts to arts spending as part of austerity measures.

"We don't have the luxury of waiting. We can't wait for other collapses. We need an immediate intervention to heal years of delays and neglect," D'Alessio said.

Pompeii is an engine of local economic growth that supports hotels, restaurants, guides, transportation and travel agencies.

Pompeii advocates have accused Bondi of being responsible for the decline of the sprawling site, which remained buried and undiscovered for about 1,700 years under ash until excavations started in 1748.

"In the last two years, the decisions regarding Pompeii have been made by politicians and not by experts," Tsao Cevoli, president of the national association of archaeologists, told Reuters.

Cevoli and other critics said that under Bondi's administration, the culture ministry has concentrated on events rather than regular maintenance.

Money was invested in a hologram tour where the image of Julius Polybius, a nobleman of ancient Pompeii, guides visitors around a 3D virtual version of his sumptuous villa.

"We must invest in regular maintenance. This does not attract attention but is very necessary," Cevoli told Reuters, adding that removing weeds from roofs and walls is not as enticing as light shows and holograms but it does stop water infiltration.

He said that there have been seven collapses in a year but not all of them have received the publicity they deserved.

"The fact that there have been so many collapses in such a short period means that something serious is happening. These are very dangerous signs," he said at the site.

He said that about $107 million were spent in the last two years for what he called "spectacular but not indispensable restorations" of single structures like the second-century-B.C. Great Theater.

"The minister is responsible for having chosen a management style at Pompeii that favored appearance over substance. No expert would have done this. Technicians, restorers and archaeologists were denied any say in the matter," Cevoli said.

Pompeii was buried under ash, pumice pebbles and dust by the force of an eruption equivalent to about 40 of today's atomic bombs.  Two-thirds of the 165-acre town has been uncovered. 

The city, which was home to about 13,000 people at the time, was frozen in time, offering a total picture of the ancient world.

Pliny the Younger witnessed the cataclysm 1,931 years ago from Misenum on the northern shore of the Bay of Naples. 

He wrote:  "A dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood."

Some said that the only solution to saving Pompeii is to privatize it.

"Precisely because it belongs to all humanity, its management should be taken away from a state that has shown itself incapable of protecting it," Italy's leading business newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, said in a editorial.

However, privatization of culture is still a politically loaded subject in Italy, so most observers see a mix of state ownership and some pirate sponsorship as the best solution.

Judith Harris, author of the 2007 book "Pompeii Awakened," told Reuters that it would be important that sponsors allow archaeologists do what they feel is necessary.

"There is no glamour in pigeon control and weed removal but they are necessary," she said.