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Pompeii risks falling apart, warns UNESCO

Calls for extraordinary measures after walls crumble

03 March, 20:08
Pompeii risks falling apart, warns UNESCO (By Denis Greenan).

(ANSA) - Naples, March 3 - United Nations cultural organisation UNESCO on Monday warned Italy that the world-famous ancient Roman site of Pompeii risked falling apart after the latest in a string of rain-related collapses. "Pompeii is destined to collapse entirely" without extraordinary measures, said the head of Italy's national UNESCO commission. "We need a plan of action to ensure security in the entire area. Without strong drainage for rainwater, it is clear that Pompeii is destined to collapse entirely," said Giovanni Puglisi.

Heavy rain was blamed for a wall of a Roman-era shop collapsing in Pompeii on Monday, 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 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 superintendency of archaeology in Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae said Monday that the two-metre-high wall which was part of a Roman-era shop that crumbled on Monday did so under the pressure of a "great bulk of earth" rendered heavy by recent rainstorms.

In a statement, the Superintendency highlighted that areas not excavated and located right next to ancient walls are at high risk of crumbling due to hydrogeological instability.

Water has never been adequately drained from the archaeological site, the authority said, stressing that urgent renovation work is part of an ambitious project to restore and redevelop the ancient Roman ruins known as the Great Project of Pompeii.

The project provides, among other things, for an injection of 105 million euros in European Union funds for the restoration of Pompeii"s ailing monuments The UNESCO world heritage site has been plagued by poor maintenance and a lack of funds for years.

Newly appointed Culture Minister Dario Franceschini called a meeting on Tuesday to discuss the situation.

"Tomorrow I have a meeting to confront the emergency which unfortunately is longstanding", he said Monday, voicing confidence that the new government of dynamic young premier Matteo Renzi would "swing fully behind the project".

Nonetheless, a public sector union warned Pompeii would continue to crumble unless regular maintenance work is carried out.

Renato Petra, national cultural coordinator of the UGL-Intesa Funzione Pubblica union representing public sector workers, said "the lack of financial resources" were to blame as well as mismanagement.

European Union funds amounting to some 105 million euros originally allocated for Pompeii, he noted, were used to renovate other sites after they were not employed at the 2,000-year-old archaeological treasure. But Luigi Malnati, Director General of Antiquities and acting director of the superintendency of Pompeii, said the so-called 'Great Pompeii' project to repair and preserve the site was going ahead on schedule.

"The majority of the archeological park is part of the massive conservation program, the Great Pompeii Project, which is currently moving forward and comprises safety measures and restoration of all of the structures including those recently damaged", Malnati said. He praised the recent re-opening of the House of the Cryptoporticus, citing "we've had the first concrete results and others will follow in the upcoming weeks".

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, will guide the redevelopment project, then culture minister Massimo Bray announced.

The 'Comando Carabinieri per la Tutela del Patrimonio Culturale', better known as the Carabinieri Art Squad, is the branch of the Italian police responsible for combatting art and antiquities crimes.

Founded in 1969, it was the first specialist police force in the world in this sector, predating the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970.

In recent years it has pulled off a string of coups including getting top US museums like the Getty and the Met to return world-famous art that turned out to have been looted.

Bray said Nistri's background gave him "the right sensitivity for this job".

The general's appointment was hailed by political parties across the spectrum while a leading sector trade union, Uilbact, said: "He will do well in his new post because he guarantees the transparency and legality that has to always be at the forefont at Pompeii".

Former culture minister Francesco Rutelli said Nistri was "a smart choice".

Bray went on to stress that funds were no issue for the project.

"Pompeii doesn't need money. The project launched has starting funds (already allocated)," the culture minister said.

"With the plan made by former (regional development) minister (Fabrizio) Barca, the EU already has funds for the protection of the site. Now it is a matter of applying our best efforts to the field to reach the results," Bray said.

Barca was the minister of so-called 'territorial cohesion' under the technical government led by ex-premier Mario Monti which preceded the last government led by Enrico Letta, who was effectively ousted by Renzi last month.

Bray envisioned a Pompeii "with welcoming hotels" and an "efficient little train like the one connecting Heathrow with London" that would whisk visitors from Naples to the ancient Roman city that was buried under pumice and ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.

"I would like to arrive in the Naples train station and find an information service that can usher tourists to Pompeii, perhaps also to a museum. This all has to be built, but if we work together, we will succeed," Bray said.

The culture minister said Nistri's No.2 would be Fabrizio Magani, a ministry official who heads cultural and landscape assets for central Italy's Abruzzo region and leads the restoration project for L'Aquila, a medieval city devastated by a 2009 earthquake that killed 297 people, left 65,000 homeless and caused severe structural damage.

Uilbact, among others, was far less welcoming to Magani.

"We express a strongly negative judgement on Fabrizio Magani's appointment because he is an art historian, while an archaeologist was needed, and there were plenty at the culture ministry who could have played that role".

The project to restore and redevelop the Pompeii archeological site was included in a decree approved by Italy's cabinet in early August.

"Project Pompeii is a project coordinating initiatives for the archaeological site. It will be overseen by a director-general to ensure compliance with the commitments regarding Pompeii, who will also have special superintendence over (the other ancient Roman sites of) Herculaneum and Stabiae," the culture minister said when the decree was approved.

The director will be supported by a maximum staff of 20 technicians, as well as five experts in law, economics, architecture, urban planning and infrastructure.

In November State, regional and local authorities signed a Pompeii management protocol in line with UNESCO stipulations.

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

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

Unions at Pompeii have repeatedly alerted authorities to new damage surfacing in the past month.

Critics complain that not enough is being done to preserve and protect the site, which has been plagued for decades by accusations of mismanagement, neglect and even mafia infiltration.