Shoring up the wonders
Even in the brightest sunshine, Mount Vesuvius casts a threatening shadow over Naples in southern Italy. Residents live in fear of the volcano, whose murderous eruption in AD 79 propelled lava and ash over surrounding towns, including Pompeii and adidas neo Herculaneum, burying them.
For centuries, the ancient towns remained safely sealed from the elements; they were rediscovered only in the eighteenth century. Archaeological excavations since then have revealed much about life in Roman times, but Pompeii in particular dominates the public imagination. The 66 hectare site, two thirds of which has been excavated, receives more than 2 million visitors a year. Many Neapolitans make their living thanks to the tourist industry created by the catastrophe.
But a new shadow has fallen on the sites. The collapse of some structures during the past few years including Pompeii Schola Armaturarum or of the Gladiators in November 2010 has raised questions about whether Italy is taking good enough care of its considerable cultural heritage. Concerns have been inflamed by a well publicized series of calamities, small and large, at several other sites in Italy, including stones falling from the walls of the Colosseum a year ago.
Italy has the largest number of entries of any country on the World Heritage List, which was created on 16 November 1972 under the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage. Along with Italy place on the list comes moral pressure to safeguard its heritage artefacts, artworks and architectures from the Etruscan and Roman periods, through the Renaissance and up to the twentieth century dictatorship of Mussolini, which put an end to Italian glory. Minor amphitheatres in remote towns like Cassino and specialized scientific collections such as the University of Pavia eccentric hoard of pathological specimens are considered no less important than better known items.
It is often forgotten just how much Italy is doing right where its heritage is concerned. Many important sites and artworks are in fine shape for example, the painstakingly restored Last Supper by Leonardo da Vinci in Milan. Between 1977 and 1999, adidas obuv pánska under the guidance of Pinin Brambilla Barcilon, conservators used techniques such as chemical analysis of different layers of the fresco in microscopic core samples and infrared reflectoscopy to see below the surface of the fresco without harming it. Indeed, Italy has several world class conservation and restoration institutes, including the International Centre for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property in Rome and the Opificio delle Pietre Dure in Florence.
Yet political support for culture in Italy dwindled from the 1980s onwards, and funds continue to shrink alarmingly. Retiring staff working at cultural heritage sites are not replaced. The proportion of the state budget dedicated to culture shrank from 0.39 in 2000 (more than 2 billion, or US billion) to 0.19 in 2011 (less than 1.5 billion).
The consequences are evident at the Vesuvius archaeological sites. Any city will quickly deteriorate if its roofs are not fixed and its drains not cleared. Over the decades, water from below and above has caused salts to leach through walls, destabilizing them, damaging mosaics and destroying frescos.
The problems are as much managerial as financial. Pompeii acquired substantial subsidies through the European Union (EU) Structural Funds in the 1980s and 1990s. But instead of using those to conserve the exposed remains, the superintendency embarked on glamorous new excavation work to impress politicians. This went so badly that, at one point, the EU suspended payment.
In 1997, just 16 out of the Pompeii superintendency 711 staff were archaeologists, architects and art historians; in the era of computers, 34 were typists. Successive governments went on to shamelessly ignore Pompeii autonomy. The 2006 government siphoned off 30 million of Pompeii income for spending elsewhere. In 2008, the government declared a one year state of emergency for the site, later extended by a further year. This system protects heritage from crass development, but can be damagingly slow in operation. Moreover, staff at all sites from archeologists to ticket collectors are government employees with jobs for life. The inflexibilities make long term planning almost impossible.
During the past decade or so, successive governments have experimented with new approaches to funding conservation, with some clear successes. The Egyptian Museum in Turin has, since 2005, been managed by a private foundation. This has renovated and modernized the museum, to international acclaim. And shoe magnate Diego Della Valle is paying 25 million for urgently needed conservation work on Rome Colosseum that is being directed by the ministry. In return, he gets exclusive rights to use the image of the edifice to promote his products for 15 years. Alarmed academics have tried to equate such activities with privatization. But the heritage itself remains firmly in the possession of the state, which retains full power to control conservation or restoration projects.
Now the Pompeii superintendency has a further 105 million of EU structural funds to spend on securing its site, efficiently and effectively, under stern oversight and within just three years. This will be a challenge, although the project acquired a further 20 or so architects and archaeologists this year.
Herculaneum, fortunately, won the support of philanthropist David W. Packard, son of the co founder of the Hewlett Packard information technology company. His Packard Humanities Institute in Los Altos, California, has been running the Herculaneum Conservation Project in partnership with the superintendency and the British School at Rome for the past 11 years. This international, interdisciplinary team of archaeologists, architects and conservationists do unglamorous practical conservation work. This could be mending the ancient drainage networks, repairing roof coverings or driving out the pigeons whose voluminous, acidic excreta destroy frescos. The work is mostly low tech for example, adidas obuv pánska the best solution they found for the pigeons is to encourage falconers to visit the site regularly.
The Herculaneum project has inspired at least one other consortium of foreign scientists to bid to help to conserve and restore some frescoed houses in Pompeii, working in partnership with the Italians.
Such respectful international support for Italy cultural heritage is fundamental. But the country will have to help itself by relaxing outdated labour laws and modernizing management of its cultural heritage systematically. Italy can do much about Vesuvius shadow. It can do a lot about the political shadows it casts on itself.