Ask any tourist, from New York to Beijing, to name an Italian monument. The answer will probably be the Colosseum. With nearly 2,000 years of history, the amphitheatre built under the leadership of the Roman emperors of the Flavian dynasty, for circus games and gladiatorial combats, is the most visited monument in the country. Almost 5 million take in its wonder every year. Its popularity provides a benefit which is more down to earth for the Colosseum generates some five billion euros each year.
But the Colosseum is also a symbol of how this unique resource is managed. The budget for study preservation and management of the amphitheatre is just 800,000 euros a year. That money pays for the cleaning of the marble for instance and the study and cataloguing of the archaeological pieces found on the site. Italy has no natural oil wealth but an historical and cultural resource fashioned through 28 centuries of an unbroken civilisation. It is a simple truth but difficult to translate into practice.
“I’ll tell you a popular joke. It is funny but also bitter and goes like this: “You know that 60% of the world’s cultural heritage is in Italy? And the rest? The rest is safe!” That’s the problem with Italy’s cultural heritage. There was a culture of government in this country that considers the heritage simply as an added expense an unnecessary expense an economic burden, “ said Vittorio Cogliati Dezza head of the environmental organisation Legambiente
Italy has the most number of classified Unesco heritage sites. Forty-seven in all ahead of Spain and China with 44 and 43.
And yet mere crumbs are allocated to manage this wealth. In the last 10 years, the budget has been virtually cut in half. From a little over €2 billion it has fallen to less than one and a half billion in 2011.
Maybe it is not surprising then to hear more and more alarming information on the state of the conservation of this heritage. In recent weeks, for example, a, “red zone” of 15 meters has been imposed around the Colosseum to protect passers-by from any material which crashes down from the façade. According to archaeologists in the last two years as many pieces have fallen from site as in the last 10 years.
Then the idea was put forward to use philanthropists, entrepreneurs who would be willing to sponsor the restoration of a monument. Diego della Valle the CEO of the Italian leather goods company Tod’s put 25 million euros up for the Colosseum. That sponsorship model has been copied and on January 28, the fashion house Fendi announced a deal of more than two million for the Trevi Fountain.
The work scheduled to be paid for by the sponsorship is on hold at the Colosseum after a dispute over the awarding of the tender only the most urgent paid for by the government is continuing. There are also question marks over the whole idea of a company receiving publicity for its sponsorship on a heritage which belongs to the country. The director sees no conflict of interest.
“The Colosseum needed sponsorship 20 years ago. It is clear that the Department did not have the funds to deal with a complete restoration of the amphitheatre. Twenty years on the situation has worsened, so welcome to backing from a private company. The sponsorship agreement provides no possibility of advertising on the monument, “ explained Archaeological director of the Colosseum Rossella Rea.
“This is not a sponsorship, it’s a fire sale! For a few cents we sell off a private monument that represents Italy and can be used for advertising and commercial operations. They say it is not like that, but we have read the contract. They will cede the naming rights to third parties and other private concerns to be able to say “Friends of the Colosseum,” opined Carlo Rienzi Head of consumer association Codacons.
Pending court decisions, there is another serious and urgent problem, traffic. Despite a partial pedestrianisation zone, more than 2,000 vehicles per hour pass here. There are now at least 3000 cracks in the Colosseum and there is the construction of a new metro line close by.
In Pompeii, near Naples, lie the remains of the city where the wealthy citizens of ancient Rome enjoyed holidays. In seventy-nine AD the volcanic eruption of Vesuvius froze in time twelve-thousand inhabitants. Frozen? That is easier said than done, because the second most visited site in Italy, on the Unesco list since 1997, has deteriorated inexorably.
In 2010 the collapse of the house of the gladiators shocked the world and sparked shame. The situation has not changed much.
The day after our arrival, a landslide due to the lack of proper drainage led to the collapse of modern retaining wall, next to a restoration project.
The European Union has decided to act alongside the Italian state. This month the European Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn gave the go-ahead for the “Grand Pompeii Project”, to the tune of one hundred and five million euros.
“The Grand Pompeii Project “ is very important opportunity as it will secure all the archaeological site. Creating this security setting means restoration can go ahead in different buildings and in the coming years, keeping the whole city under control,” said Grete Stefani Director of the Pompeii archaeological site.
Restoration work is already in progress In some houses. The House of Golden Cupids, will re-open to the public soon. But of the one thousand five hundred buildings in the sixty-six hectares which make up Pompeii, in the hundred of the most important buildings, two dozen are closed, either because they are being restored or they are hazardous and due to lack of staff 15 are open under a rotation system due to the lack of staff.
“In the past we had a group of thirty people, an office shared between architects surveyors and assistants. At the moment we are less than half that number,” said Carmel Mazza Architect at the Pompeii archaeological site.
The problem is that on 66 hectare site for each of three daily shifts there are less than 30 supervisors. Half of the site is open to the public and attracts 10,000 visitors daily. In 1997 there were 279 working here, today that number is 197. Staff who retire are not replaced.
Under these conditions it is difficult to maintain on a daily basis the ancient city. And yet, to save what remains, to prevent further deterioration, regular maintenance is the only solution. The Grand Pompeii project may be timely but it will do nothing to solve the problem according to one architect.
“Once again they implement the project slowly but these projects probably only serve to be able to say “We saved Pompeii” because, “we have saved Pompeii” is a recurring statement by successive governments and ministers,” claimed Antonio Irlando Head of regional observatory for cultural patrimony.
About seven kilometres from Pompeii, is Oplontis and the magnificent villa of Poppea for which it may already be too late. It is not easy for tourists to get here. The site is hidden in the middle of a neighbourhood and poorly signposted. It was the holiday home of one of the most famous first ladies – the second wife of Nero and was beautifully decorated. Today the frescoes give a hint of the magnificence of the place, but the lighting system has not worked for years and no one has come to repair it. Here a restorer is working with a colleague, to repair certain decorations. Just behind the water flows from the roof his efforts will not last long.