By FRANCES D'EMILIO, THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
ROME - Italy is rich in ancient wonders, but the real wonder may be that so many are still standing given the poor care they get.
The collapse in Pompeii last week of a frescoed house where gladiators prepared for combat was the latest archaeological accident waiting to happen. The structure was a piece of storied past that had survived the furious explosion of Vesuvius in 79 A.D. — but apparently could not withstand modern-day neglect.
"We're stunned when some walls fall down. But these are ruins not systematically maintained, so the miracle is that so few of them collapse," said Andrea Carandini, a world-renowned archaeologist who leads a panel of professional consultants in the Cultural Ministry.
Last spring, a huge segment of the now underground complex of Nero's fabled Golden Palace in Rome gave way, raining down pieces of vaulted ceiling in one of the galleries beneath a garden popular with strollers. Three years ago, a 6-meter (20-foot) section of ancient wall named after the 3rd century Emperor Aurelius, who built it to defend Rome against the first onslaught of barbarians, crumpled into a pile of bricks after days of heavy rain.
A couple of months ago, three chunks of mortar broke off the Colosseum , hours before the symbol of the Eternal City opened its gates to tourists.
While the ancient Roman arena of gladiator battles and other spectacles has survived earthquakes, lightning strikes and pillaging, architects and engineers still fret about the architectural marvel, eroded by pollution, rattled by subway cars running nearby, and still suffering from centuries of poor drainage.
But topping experts' list of potential perils is the Palatine Hill. For years, archaeologists and structural engineers have been issuing alarms that the once palatial homes of Rome's ancient emperors risk collapse because of poor upkeep.
Fissures are apparent in brickwork, and rainwater seeps through stone, forcing the closure of much of the hill's expanse to tourists.
Pompeii's gladiator barracks along the doomed city's main street joined a list of other recent victims of neglect in the sprawling remains that were once buried under the volcanic ash of Vesuvius' wrath.
Among the more noted casualties was the collapse in January of the House of the Chaste Lovers, which was excavated in 1987, a relatively recent addition for the 3 million tourists who tread the Pompeii's stone paths each year.
"We are tired of commenting on the continuous collapses and damage to the archaeological heritage of our country," said Giorgia Leoni, president of the Italian Confederation of Archaeologists in a statement after the gladiators' place fell apart on Saturday.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano on Tuesday decried what he called "terrible negligence" as a chief reason for national embarrassments like the Pompeii collapse.
Carandini, interviewed on Italian radio, warned that should Pompeii be hard hit by an earthquake — "we wouldn't be able to do a (complete) restoration" because no relief map has ever been made of the site. The Naples area, which hosts the ruins, is one of Italy's most earthquake-prone.
Lovers of antiquities here have long bemoaned the chronic shortage of funding — relative crumbs in the national budget pie — for routine maintenance of treasures to shore up shaky structures and save them for posterity.
Italy's Cultural Ministry, whose duties include caring for and repairing ancient monuments and artworks, gets a mere 0.18 per cent of the national budget, compared to roughly 1 per cent for France, according to ministry officials. It's a startling contrast for a nation that boasts the world's highest number of ruins, churches, monasteries and other artistic and architectural treasures — helping to make tourism one of Italy's biggest industries.
Ironically, experts describe Italy as being "in the avant-garde for programs of prevention, for pinpointing" potential peril with the help of architects and engineers, and drawing up a "kind of map of risk."
Giorgio Croci, one of Italy's best-known engineers for structural problems, said the nation's know-how is so in demand that Turkey has commissioned him to study Istanbul's monuments for potential perils.
"But one of the woes of this country is a bureaucracy that's paralyzing," he said. "In some cases, plans just languish in the drawers of officials or bureaucrats."
Greece, with its legacy of ancient marvels, seems to do a better job at keeping its treasures intact.
On the whole, Greek sites have benefited from a generously-funded restoration and conservation program over the past decades. Although Greece is staggering through a severe economic crisis, work has continued on the Acropolis, whose marble temples and monumental gates have been painstakingly taken to pieces, sorted out and stuck together.
That work started after experts realized, in the 1970s, that quick action was needed because of worsening pollution and damage from past restorations.
In Italy, private sponsors, ranging from utility companies to mattress manufacturers, fill some of the gap. But they pick and choose, often "adopting" only the most high-profile projects, seldom unheralded but crucial work such as removing wildflower roots from cracks in millennia old stonework.
Croci said the Pompeii collapse might have been avoided if simple, affordable measures had been taken preventatively — such as injecting material to encourage cohesion in the stone or simply covering the structure with some kind of shelter.
"A lot of the interventions are not that costly," said Croci, who has mapped out weak spots in the Colosseum and Palatine Hill ruins.
The structure was repaired in 1947 after damage from World War II bombing, and the use of reinforced concrete in that restoration was cited by some as a possible cause for the collapse.
Inspecting the wreckage on Tuesday, Pompeii's recently appointed superintendent, Jeannette Papadopoulos, said reinforced concrete was "slowly" being removed from some of the earlier restorations but that "unfortunately" restorers hadn't gotten around to tackling the gladiators' building.
Croci, who hasn't inspected the collapsed house, disagreed, citing infiltration of rainwater rather than concrete as the more likely culprit.
During a walkabout through the ruins two days after the collapse, a noted Pompeii expert pointed to rivers of rain runoff — as a state TV camera rolled — pouring through the sprawling site because weeds were clogging gutters and sewers.
"All you need is a team of artisans, carpenters and such to call when you see a simple problem," said Fabrizio Pesando, a professor at Naples University of Oriental Studies.
Associated Press reporter Nicholas Paphitis in Athens contributed to this report.