ROME Collapsing walls at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii have raised fresh concerns about Italy's efforts to maintain one of the world's most treasured sites, preserved for 2,000 years but now crumbling from neglect.
On Monday, site officials said part of a wall had collapsed on one of Pompeii's major streets after weeks of heavy rains and wind. Plaster had also fallen off the wall of the ornately frescoed House of the Small Fountain.
A series of collapses in Pompeii over the last month led Italian media to dub it a "Black November" for the ancient city, preserved under ash from a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D. and rediscovered in the 18th century, revealing a time capsule of daily life in Roman times.
The European Union launched a 105 million euro ($140 million) restoration project for the UNESCO World Heritage site in February but work has only partially begun as bids by companies for contracts are still being assessed, according to a site official.
The declaration of a state of emergency five years ago failed to halt the deterioration amid allegations that funds were being siphoned off by the mafia, and reports of mismanagement and looting. The collapse of the frescoed House of the Gladiators caused international outcry in 2010.
Italy's National Association of Archaeologists expressed "regret and anger" at the latest collapse and criticized the government for failing to appoint someone to lead the restoration.
"This is an incomprehensible delay. If culture is to be a priority in Italy we must start with Pompeii, now decimated by continuous collapses caused mainly by a lack of routine maintenance," the group said in a statement.
The fresh collapses come at an embarrassing moment for the government which in October passed a decree to improve access to Italy's heritage sites in order to stimulate tourism.
The law ordered the Pompeii restoration project to be sped up and for the person to lead the works to be named.
Responding to the latest collapses, Culture Minister Massimo Bray said that person would be named within a week.
"The work will begin with the restoration of the wall damaged yesterday. The damage, albeit limited, requires intervention," Bray said on Twitter.
Italian media have highlighted the contrast between the management of Pompeii and a successful exhibition at the British Museum in London about the ancient city, which helped attract record numbers of visitors this year.
The EU's regional fund spent 7.7 million euro on restoration at Pompeii during 2000-2006, but today just five individual sites are open at any one time due to damage, compared to 64 in 1956.
With over 2 million tourists each year, Pompeii is one of Italy's top attractions.
($1 = 0.7345 euros)
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)