The Ruined Ruins

By Nadeau, Barbie Latza | Newsweek, January 17, 2011 | Go to article overview

The Ruined Ruins


Nadeau, Barbie Latza, Newsweek


Byline: Barbie Latza Nadeau

You may have thought Pompeii died after that battle with Vesuvius in A.D. 79. In fact, the gloriously preserved Roman town is being destroyed now, thanks to human neglect.

In early November a building where athletes once trained to fight collapsed into a pile of rubble. Since then, structures have been tumbling down at an astonishing rate. Huge sections of a garden wall around the House of the Moralist fell on two separate occasions. In early December an ancient shop and the House of the Small Lupanare were reduced to heaps of mortar. Shelves regularly fall from the moldings, and a wooden scaffolding put in place a half-century ago is visibly rotting. Reports in the local newspaper suggest that many more buildings have crumbled without a mention. The government blames an unusually rainy autumn for the recent damage, but since 2008 there have been 15 major catastrophes that experts attribute to neglect. The irony is that if any city should know how to deal with ruins, it's this one: Pompeii.

The ruins of Pompeii, destroyed after the Italian volcano Mount Vesuvius blew its top in A.D. 79, have actually been falling apart for years. "The real truth is, no one has done anything to secure these ancient excavations since they were excavated," says Claudio D'Alessio, mayor of Pompeii. "You'd think that at least [the recent destruction] would have prompted an intervention to prevent new collapses, but there's not much more than a few fences to make sure the next collapse doesn't hurt anyone." Pompeii has intermittently been on the World Monuments Fund's list of endangered sites to watch, and UNESCO dispatched an unprecedented emergency mission to the city in early December after the House of Gladiators fell. Experts from the International Council on Monuments and Sites studied the damage at more than a dozen of Pompeii's most popular relics and demanded that streets be closed on Jan. 1 while emergency fortifications are put in place. But those Band-Aids have about as much chance of saving the city as the locals did when Vesuvius erupted. Some experts predict that Pompeii as we know it is unlikely to survive even beyond the next decade.

Unfortunately, the good people of Pompeii--or at least the ones with the power to throw the city a life vest--beg to differ. Jeannette Papadopoulos, superintendent of the Pompeii archeological park, warns against "useless alarmism" after the recent collapses. "These types of events are expected over the course of the life of a 2,000-year-old vast archeological site," she says. And according to a shocking statement issued in December by Italy's culture minister, Sandro Bondi, the buildings that fell were hardly worth saving. "The collapse did not involve anything of artistic, archeological, or historical worth," he wrote. The preservation community promptly called for his resignation, though it does that almost every time a Pompeii structure crumbles to dust and nothing is done. Well, not exactly nothing. Guards have cordoned off several streets, patrolling vigilantly to make sure none of the 3 million tourists who visit each year steps, sits, or even leans on anything precarious lest it, too, turn to rubble.

If Bondi's and Papadopoulos's arguments hold as much water as a cobblestone street, that's because the government knows full well what it would take to save Pompeii--money. The region of Campania is in financial straits due to a crippling garbage crisis that has seen millions siphoned from all departments and shoveled into waste removal. …

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