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Fresh collapse adds to alarm over Pompeii

Degradation at Roman city has spurred govt action

20 March, 19:27
Fresh collapse adds to alarm over Pompeii (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Naples, March 20 - An apparently fresh wall collapse added to swelling alarm over the world-famous archaeological site of Pompeii Thursday. The collapse initially appeared to be the fourth this month, coming after UNESCO warnings the miraculously preserved ancient city could "completely fall apart" and lose its world heritage status unless urgent action is taken.

A part of a wall came down in a little-known 'domus', or house, officials said, suggesting this had happened earlier Thursday or late Wednesday.

But Pompeii's newly appointed superintendent, Massimo Osanna, told ANSA the incident "did not happen last night and initial tests indicate it was not even recent".

However, the uncertainty over the exact date of the event did little to still a groundswell of concern over the state of Pompeii. News of the collapse came a day after the government unveiled extraordinary measures including sending in 30 private security guards after the wave of structural damage - much due to torrential rain - and the recent theft of two priceless frescoes. The government says that it will also speed up tendering for work on other new surveillance measures including a more secure fence for the site, which has been plagued by problems that have contributed to parts of the 2,000-year-old site crumbling.

The European Commission has pledged 105 million euros for repairs and restoration under the ambitious Great Pompeii Project for the world-famous site, created when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, preserving the entire city in ash.

Security has also been sub-standard, critics say, and earlier this week reports emerged that a portion of a fresco of Apollo and Artemis was stolen at least one week earlier.

Another vaulable fresco was removed but mysteriously returned a week later.

Pompeii has been plagued for decades by accusations of mismanagement, neglect and even infiltration by the local Camorra mafia.

Heavy rain was blamed for a wall of a Roman-era shop collapsing in Pompeii on March 3, a day after two other precious parts of the ancient city - a wall at the Temple of Venus and another wall on a tomb in the famed necropolis of Porta Nocera - suffered serious damage from bad weather.

These followed a long and worrying catalogue of bits of Pompeii falling off.

In November 2010 the House of the Gladiators came down, prompting Italian President Giorgio Napolitano to say: "This is a disgrace for the whole of Italy".

In February 2012 a piece of plaster came off the Temple of Jupiter, one of Pompeii's main attractions.

Then, in September 2012, at the Villa of the Mysteries, an even more iconic building, a five-metre-long flying buttress gave in and went crashing to the ground.

Last November, finally, a wall in one of the ancient city's main thoroughfares, Via dell'Abbondanza, keeled over while another piece of decorative plaster, at the House of the Little Fountain, dropped from the ceiling.

The latest collapse involved a wall in simple brick, not frescoed, and located in an alley off Via Nola, one of Pompeii's main streets.

Officials said it was built using the 'opera incerta' technique, bonding pieces of local limestone with grey mortar.

The area is not currently open to visitors.

Osanna told ANSA Wednesday he welcomed "all the extraordinary measures that may help us in the difficult safeguarding of this site".

On March 5 Italy's dynamic new premier, Matteo Renzi, vowed action to save Pompeii.

Renzi said Italy should "get over an ideological refusal" to involve the private sector in cultural projects after the recent collapses led the government to earmark two million euros for urgent repairs Tuesday.

"It is unacceptable that people should continue to pretend nothing is happening if, while The Great Beauty wins the Oscar, there is a wall in Pompeii that falls down", said Renzi.

"Italy is the country of culture and so I challenge entrepreneurs: what are you waiting for? "We have to get over an ideological refusal about the intervention of (the) private (sector), as if only public intervention could ensure our cultural heritage is preserved," said Renzi, who has come to power on a fast-paced and radical reform agenda.

"If the private sector can keep the wall up why not let it?", Italy's youngest premier said.

The head of Italy's powerful industrial confederation soon responded to Renzi's call.

"There are many people from business who have done their part," said Confindustria chief Giorgio Squinzi, recalling Tod's shoe company owner Diego Della Valle, who is funding a major restoration of the Colosseum.

"We can certainly find the entrepreneurial will to safeguard (the cultural heritage of the country)," added Squinzi.

Della Valle's Colosseum project has been the only high-profile private-sector intervention on Italy's cultural heritage in recent years.

But the project has become bogged down in red tape and union opposition.

Osanna, Italy's newly appointed superintendent for both Pompeii and the related sites of Herculaneum and Stabiae, asked for an extension to this year's deadline for spending 105 million euros of EU money to shore up the city miraculously preserved by ash.

"It's going to be hard to spend the EU's 105 million, we need an extension," he said shortly after being installed.

"So far only 40 million have been allocated, and we'll need an extension to try to spend it all by the end of 2015.

"Even then it's going to be tough", he said.

Osanna also warned of a shortage of workers essential to maintenance such as builders, carpenters and scaffolding riggers.

"Many of these have retired over the years and not been replaced," Osanna said, calling for 80 new hirings.

He said "architects and archaeologists have been hired to face the immediate emergency" after the three walls collapsed, the latest incidents in a long string of well-publicised structural cave-ins at Pompeii.

"But the work force lacks the vital lymph of younger workers," Osanna said.

He said that because of a long hiring freeze and red tape, the average worker at the site was aged between 45 and 60.

"Unless the workforce is renewed, the problems won't be solved".

UNESCO in July gave Italy until December 31 to apply a series of upgrade measures or face having Pompeii removed from its prestigious list of World Heritage sites.

The measures included video surveillance of 50% of the area and a buffer zone around the site.

Rome implemented most of the measures and got an extended deadline for the others.

In December Italy named the former head of its prestigious art-theft unit to head up the ambitious Great Pompeii project.

Giovanni Nistri, a general in the paramilitary Carabinieri police who led Italy's cultural asset-protection division from 2007 to 2010, had "the right sensitivity for this job", then culture minister Massimo Bray said.

Pompeii has been plagued for decades by mismanagement, neglect, stray dogs, infiltration by the local Camorra mafia, and frequent staff strikes that have left frustrated visitors fuming. The European Commission has told Italy to increase efforts to prevent further damage to Pompeii.

"Local, regional and national authorities must do more and work together to ensure that funds are used effectively and that Pompeii is saved for future generations," Culture Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou said earlier this month.

European Commissioner for Regional Policy Johannes Hahn urged Italian authorities to take better care of the remains of the once-bustling Roman city.

Hahn hailed Italy's new measures.

"I welcome with great favour the very concrete measures announced yesterday by the culture minister (Dario Franceschini) to safeguard Pompeii," Hahn told ANSA.

"Our commitment remains firm and we are ready to consider new financing from the (regional) planning funding (earmarked) for 2014-2020," Hahn said.

The commissioner added that two thirds of the tenders for the Great Pompeii Project, worth some 73.8 million euros, "were under way or have already been adjudicated".

Meanwhile Herculaneum was also hit by a weird theft Thursday when guard rails protecting visitors to the ancient Roman city were stolen.

Police said the theft of the copper-plated iron rails, along a walkway over the site, took place earlier this week.

Herculaneum, a onetime seaside resort, is not as famous as its big-shouldered commercial neighbour Pompeii but is unique because wood, cloth and papyrus were preserved - as well as excrement that provided rare evidence of the Roman diet.

It is still being excavated, and shows more promise than Pompeii of yielding treasures including lost literary classics.

Herculaneum gained equal footing with Pompeii at a sold-out show at the British Museum last year.

Pompeii lost all its organic material because it was covered in scalding ash while Herculaneum was hit by a scalding blast of heat that left fabric and skeletons intact.

Herculaneum is seen as recording a more refined lifestyle and culture than the rougher and bawdier Pompeii but Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, an expert on the smaller town, reckons that it could turn out to be "just as big a sin city, if a brothel is found".

Wallace-Hadrill has led a project to save Herculaneum, which until 15 years ago was heading for ruin.

The ancient resort had otherwise generally been free of the depredations that have sometimes hit Pompeii.