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Italy faces heritage questions after Pompeii collapse

ROME (AFP) ― The embarrassing collapse of buildings at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii has reignited debate in Italy over conservation, amid warnings that budget cuts could trigger fresh degradation of key sites.

“Italian cultural heritage is at risk of falling apart,” said Pier Giovanni Guzzo, the former head of the archaeological site of Pompeii.

Pompeii, which was entombed by the massive eruption of the nearby Mount Vesuvius volcano in AD 79, is one of the most visited sites in the world, receiving around three million tourists each year.

But according to Guzzo: “There hasn’t been the necessary conservation carried out.”

Late last month a 12-metre-long wall collapsed, with experts blaming persistent heavy rain. It was the second collapse in the month, after the House of the Gladiators crumbled on Nov. 6.

Cuts in Italy’s cultural budget are having a devastating impact on the country’ heritage, putting many monuments and archaeological digs at risk, Guzzo told AFP.

Nor is Pompeii the only site affected: Last March, part of the roof of the Domus Aurea ― the Golden House ― in Rome collapsed.

The huge villa, built by Emperor Nero in 64 AD after the great fire of Rome, lies just a few feet away from the Colosseum, which is also showing signs of wear and tear.

The culture budget has been shrinking for several years as Italy continues to struggle with laggard economic growth and mounting debt.

This year the budget dropped to five billion euros ($6.6 billion), down from seven billion euros two years ago.

“The cuts have a real impact. Staff who retire aren’t replaced, leading to a dwindling number of specialised staff with the skills necessary for conserving the site,” he said.

Guzzo said the lack of funds had directly contributed to the poor condition of walls and ancient buildings in Pompeii.

Archaeologists and tourism industry professionals say a greater priority should be placed on preserving the country’s heritage.

“Our heritage is vast and very fragile,” said Marcella Bagnasco, head of Italy’s national Tourist Guide Association.

“We’re not only talking about 16th century paintings but also about objects, about monuments that are thousands of years old. Italy should be doing much more to take care of them,” she added.

Maurizio Quagliuolo from Herity, an association which campaigns for quality maintenance of Italy’s cultural heritage, said the government has yet to realize the significance in terms of the country’s economy.

“The problem today is that Italy has still not understood that its cultural assets should not be considered a luxury when the economy is in crisis, but rather as a fundamental part of recovery,” he said.

While a recent attempt by Italian authorities to raise private sponsorship to restore the Colosseum flopped, heritage experts are still hoping to find extra sources of funding from somewhere.