Pompeii in Terrible Shape, but Not Because of the Volcano

The miraculously preserved Roman city is crumbling--will this, too, be laid at the feet of Berlusconi?

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Last week, the House of the Gladiators in world-famous Pompeii collapsed, setting off fresh debate about whether the World Heritage Site is being neglected. The collapse was "thanks to some combination--depending on who you ask--of the heavy Neapolitan rains, the decaying restored concrete roof, management incompetence and political neglect," reports The Guardian's Esther Addley. "Though it may be possible, once again, to rebuild it from the ground, the richly decorated frescoes of gladiators that gave the building its name may be lost for ever." Given Pompeii's status as an "archaeological miracle, the collapse of any part of it is a tragedy." So: what to do? And who is really to blame? Some are quick to lay this controversy at Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi's already complaint-crowded feet. Here's some of the reaction so far.

  • Add to the List of Reasons to Get Berlusconi Out--Now!  "As Pompeii crumbles and torrential rains flood the peninsula," writes Ingrid Rowland at The New York Review of Books, "a steady exodus has begun to descend the gangplanks of Berlusconi’s ship of state, a sure sign that water is rising in the bilge."
  • 'Should They Privatize Pompeii?'  Economist Tyler Cowen focuses on this part of a Reuters article, opening the question up for his Marginal Revolution readers. Commenter Mercy, for one, is skeptical. "Sounds like the standard privatization racket," she writes: "cut funding till something falls apart, cite as evidence the local government can't get anything right, privatize it then funnel twice as much money in subsidies as was ever spent on the government agencies, retire to a nice advisory position."
  • Locals Blame Italy, Expert Hedges  Christian Science Monitor Rome correspondent Nick Squires writes back in October, before the collapse, of many other Pompeii sites being closed as well, and "a disappointed Italian visitor" recently "scrawl[ing] 'Vergogna'--'shameful'" on a sign "outside the famous House of the Vettii." He recalls "a recent editorial in a respected [Italian] broadsheet" arguing that "Pompeii's demise reflects Italy's 'sloppiness and inefficiencies.'" Another problem is "lack of money," he says: "The cash-strapped Berlusconi government has cut funds allotted to the maintenance of ancient sites from ¤30 million (about US$42 million) in 2007 to just under ¤19 million (about $26 million) this year." But Squires also points out that British archaeology professor Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, in Pompeii for over two decades, thinks failure here may be in part a sign simply of the size of the task:
"It's such a gigantic challenge to preserve a city where there is such a terrifying rate of disintegration," he says. "It's easy to fantasize that the British or the Americans or the French would look after it better, but none of them have ever had to prove themselves with a challenge on this scale."
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