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Rome's Falling Arches

The Colosseum and other treasures of the archeologically rich city need more funding and less abuse, or they may soon be history.

June 05, 2006|Tracy Wilkinson | Times Staff Writer

ROME — Denise Sofia, in black spandex sweats, trotted across the busy 20th of September Street and neared the end of her morning jog. Her run had taken her through St. Peter's Square, along the Tiber River, around the ancient Roman ruins of the Forum and Colosseum.

Sofia doubles as a personal trainer and guide in a new fad in the gigantic tourism trade that floods Italy with millions of visitors every year: "sight-jogging." Tourists check out the sights as they run past. On this sunny morning, Sofia led a German woman in an hourlong dash over about 5 1/2 miles and 2,000 years of history.

Running is not a bad idea. If Rome's precious archeological treasures are falling apart as fast as some people fear, tourists had better hurry to see them.

OK, that's a bit of an overstatement. But the landmarks that define this legendary city are in serious disrepair, the victims of monumental neglect, shrinking budgets and the wear and tear of Mother Nature and heavy-heeled visitors.

Rome's troubles exceed those found in many other archeologically rich locations because its historic center is not a roped-off museum but a vibrant, congested urban nucleus. People live and work among the ruins. The Circus Maximus, where charioteers once rumbled, is a park for dog-walkers and picnickers. Motor scooters zip under 2,000-year-old arches and cars jostle for space on imperial promenades. It's not unusual for Romans to have archeological digs in their backyards.

"Rome is still a living place," Bonnie Burnham, president of the nonprofit World Monuments Fund, said during a recent mission to the Italian capital. Preserving its heritage "presents a special set of contemporary needs and pressures" because of the coexistence of the modern and the ancient.

The Italian government is halfway through a vast, year-long engineering assessment of hundreds of archeological sites in the Eternal City, studying their condition and determining where the most urgent repair work should be done. Visitors to some of the sites could be in danger, officials say.

Using endoscopes and other sensitive machinery, investigators thus far have detected waterlogged foundations, crumbling walls invaded by roots and weeds and fragile tunnels.

"We have a very sick patient," Angelo Bottini, the state superintendent responsible for all archeological sites, said from his office above the 500-year-old Palazzo Altemps. "We have to determine what is most at risk."

Recent calamities include:

* A 35-foot wall on the Palatine Hill, where Roman emperors built their lavish villas, collapsed. Fortunately, it fell in the middle of the night and not during the day, when it probably would have crushed tourists.

* Parts of the Colosseum, ancient Rome's enormous amphitheater, periodically close because of flooding caused by rain. Signs warn visitors to take cover if high winds kick up.

* The breathtaking Golden Palace of Nero, opened to the public with great fanfare a few years ago, was shut down when authorities decided they could no longer guarantee visitors' safety.

* The Castel Sant'Angelo, the ancient papal fortress overlooking the Tiber River that was built about AD 135-139 as a mausoleum for Emperor Hadrian, is in a shocking state of dilapidation. The leading Italian newspaper, Corriere della Sera, caused an embarrassing stir last year when it reported peeling frescoes, pocked walls and faulty wiring, judging the building to be on the verge of collapse.

* The private Protestant Cemetery, resting place of the great Romantic poets Shelley and Keats, among other notables through the centuries, was in fast decline until the World Monuments Fund and the Bulgari jewelry dynasty stepped in a couple of months ago to help.

Italian cultural authorities sometimes give the impression of having a finger in the dike, rushing from one crisis to another as they plug the holes in the country's vast archeological patrimony.

The biggest problem is money. Even though Italy earns billions of dollars from its archeological attractions, the budget for the Culture Ministry has been slashed steadily over the last five years as part of overall cost-cutting measures the government said were necessary. Today, funds allocated to the ministry are a tiny fraction of the government's budget.

Traditionally, the responsibility for maintaining and restoring Italy's priceless patrimony rested with the papacy, royalty and wealthy notables. But today, it lies with the government; consequently, it has been difficult to raise donations among individuals because they don't see conservation efforts as their duty. And the sheer amount of precious art and artifacts has left many Italians blase. Yet advocates say bringing in money from the private sector is key to solving the problem.

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