Crumbling Pompeii site in "state of emergency"

ROME (Reuters) - The Italian government declared a state of emergency at the Pompeii archaeological site on Friday to try to rescue one of the world’s most important cultural treasures from decades of neglect.

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A cabinet statement said it would appoint a special commissioner for Pompeii, the ancient Roman city buried by an eruption of the Vesuvius volcano in AD 79 and now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

“To call the situation intolerable doesn’t go far enough,” said Culture Minister Sandro Bondi, who took office in Silvio Berlusconi’s new conservative government in May.

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.

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.

A report in daily Corriere della Sera this week said most of the 1,500 houses at the site are closed to the public, its frescoes have faded to become almost invisible and restoration work that began in 1978 has yet to be completed.

The “state of emergency”, which the government said would last for a year, allows for extra funds and special measures to be taken to protect the site.

“Every year at least 150 square meters of fresco and plaster work are lost for lack of maintenance,” Antonio Irlando, a regional councilor responsible for artistic heritage, told the newspaper.

“The same goes for stones: at least 3,000 pieces every year end up disintegrating,” he said.

A long-running dispute between local authorities over how to look after Pompeii has only made things worse.

Pompeii’s superintendent Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, who will now be flanked by the government’s commissioner, said he had long denounced problems at the site -- from retired guards who have not been replaced to the lack of a sewage system and poor “veterinary surveillance”.

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 260 years ago.

The remaining third is still buried, but Corriere said the ground above it is being used as an illegal rubbish dump -- a result of the trash crisis in the nearby city of Naples -- and is scattered with tires, fridges and mattresses.

Editing by Richard Balmforth