Pompeii collapse prompts charges of official neglect

ROME Sun Nov 7, 2010 10:54am EST

1 of 3. People stand near debris after a house, once used by gladiators to train before combat, collapsed in Pompeii November 6, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Ciro De Luca

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ROME (Reuters) - Archaeologists, commentators and opposition politicians accused Italy's government of neglect and mismanagement on Sunday over the collapse of the 2,000-year-old "House of the Gladiators" in the ruins of ancient Pompeii.

Some commentators said the UNESCO World Heritage site should be privatized and removed from state control because the government had shown it was incapable of protecting it.

"Pompeii -- the collapse of shame," La Stampa newspaper headlined, echoing national opinion over the cultural disaster.

The stone house, on one of the site's main streets and measuring about 80 square meters (860 square ft), collapsed just after dawn on Saturday while Pompeii was closed to visitors.

The structure was believed to be where gladiators gathered and trained and used as a club house before going to battle in a nearby amphitheatre in the city that was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.

Known officially by its Latin name "Schola Armaturarum Juventus Pompeiani," the structure was not open to visitors but was visible from the outside as tourists walked along one of the ancient city's main streets.

Its walls were decorated with frescoes of military themes. Culture Minister Sandro Bondi visited the site on Sunday and said experts believe at least some frescoes could be saved.

Some 2.5 million tourists visit Pompeii each year, making it one of Italy's most popular attractions, and many have expressed shock at the site's decay.

Art historians and residents for years have complained that the archaeological sites at Pompeii, just south of Naples, were in a state of decay and needed regular maintenance.

Roberto Cecchi, undersecretary at the Culture Ministry, said there had been no effective, continuous maintenance at Pompeii in half a century.

Breaking ranks with his own ministry, he said stop-gap, ad hoc measures, such as the appointment of commissioners, which attracted flashes of publicity were no substitute for the constant monitoring worthy of a world treasure.

MORE COLLAPSES "INEVITABLE"

La Repubblica newspapers called the collapse a "world scandal" and blamed the center-right government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi for putting unqualified people in charge and for cutting funds for Italy's vast cultural heritage.

"Inevitably, there will be other collapses, other ruins, other disasters," an editorial said.

"This is the latest sign that this government is not interested in culture," former Rome mayor Walter Veltroni, a former leader of the opposition Democratic Party, said.

Officials said the probable cause was heavy rains but most commentators said longstanding neglect was the root problem because Pompeii should have been better protected from weather.

Il Sole 24 Ore, Italy's leading business newspaper, said the only solution for Pompeii was a private sponsor such as an insurance, beverage or car company which would be allowed to place its logos at the entrance.

"Precisely because it belongs to all humanity, its management should be taken away from a state that has shown itself incapable of protecting it," Il Sole said.

Two years ago the government declared a state of emergency for Pompeii but it lasted only a year.

One newspaper, Il Fatto Quotidiano, headlined its story "The Last Days of Pompeii," the title of classic 1834 book by Edward Bulwer-Lytton about the death of the ancient city.

Archaeologists and art historians have long complained about the poor upkeep of Pompeii, dogged by lack of investment, mismanagement, litter and looting. Bogus tour guides, illegal parking attendants and stray dogs also plague visitors.

Two-thirds of the 66-hectare (165-acre) town, home to some 13,000 people in the Roman era, have been uncovered since serious excavations began some 260 years ago.

The remaining third is still buried and many modern buildings have been constructed over it, making future excavations virtually impossible.

(Editing by Michael Roddy)

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