Indecision and inactivity while Pompeii crumbles


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The scandal over conditions at the ancient Roman city of Pompeii has yet to die down since a structure known as the “School of the Gladiators” collapsed there in early November. At least three other major collapses occurred in the past two months.

ED-AM867_pompei_G_20110111163233Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano has called the situation a “national disgrace”; opposition parliamentarians continue to press for Culture Minister Sandro Bondi’s resignation; and in mid-December, prosecutors announced that they were investigating nine people, including Pompeii’s former superintendent, to see whether they should be charged with criminal neglect.

Pompeii is, of course, a uniquely important archaeological site: a 160-acre time capsule sealed by volcanic ash in A.D. 79, at the height of the Roman empire, until its rediscovery almost 1,700 years later. Yet experts and activists say that the city’s perilous current state is just one dramatic example of a widespread national emergency.

A continuing study by the preservationist group Our Italy has already identified more than 80 major monuments and archaeological sites nationwide at grave risk of collapse, including Bologna’s two great medieval towers, the ancient Aurelian walls around Rome, and Capua’s Roman amphitheater, second in size only to the Colosseum.

Recent events have thus revived a long-running national debate over why Italy cannot take better care of its rich cultural heritage. Many commentators have stressed funding shortages, noting that governments of both the right and the left have cut culture spending over the past decade.

Italy’s leading financial newspaper, Il Sole 24 Ore, has even suggested that Pompeii turn to corporate sponsors like Ferrari and Coca-Cola, which might pay for the chance to associate their brands with the ruins they help preserve. Later this month, the Italian government is expected to approve tens of millions of euros in emergency funds to address the Pompeii crisis.

Money is not the only problem, however. Administrative costs are the one area in which culture spending has risen, but the returns on that investment have been disappointing. In recent years, as the basic maintenance that might have prevented the collapses at Pompeii was left undone, administrators there focused on multimedia shows and live performances in a first- century B.C. amphitheater.

That Italians should lack the money or competence to care for their cultural treasures ought to astonish. Italy is, after all, the world’s seventh-largest economy, thanks largely to its innovative entrepreneurs and the high standards of its consumer goods—many of them global brands.

Even more to the point, Italy’s cultural patrimony is the basis for one of its most important growth industries. According to Mario Resca, the culture ministry’s director-general in charge of developing the commercial potential of Italy’s state-owned museums, more than half of Italy’s huge tourism business (the fifth largest in terms of international arrivals) is focused on cultural attractions. That’s up from 14% two decades ago; and as populations in Europe and other wealthy regions continue to age, the proportion is bound to rise. Italy has 48 U.N. World Heritage sites, more than any other country, meaning that the cultural-tourism sector enjoys an unparalleled comparative advantage.

Given such a confluence of interests, you might assume Italian business would be eager to show the state how to correct any deficiencies in its management of national treasures. And for over two years now, Mr. Resca has been trying to do just that.

The former chairman of McDonald’s Italia has used aggressive marketing techniques, including discounted admission fees and provocative ads (a poster showing a half-dismantled Colosseum warns “If you don’t visit, we’ll take it away”), to draw the public to state-owned museums. He says overall attendance, which has lagged behind other major European countries, rose by 15.5% in the first 10 months of 2010. And he has recently solicited bids for improved museum cafeterias, bookshops and audio guides, which are often primitive when they exist at all.

Better-attended museums with better services will raise more money for preservation and other purposes. But Mr. Resca says that the national government’s network of 464 museums also suffers from a rigid, slow-moving bureaucracy, for which part of the solution is devolution of many institutions to regional governments and in some cases privatization.

The culture ministry’s powerful superintendents, career civil servants chosen through rigorous examinations in their academic fields, also need to learn more about management, Mr. Resca says, noting that their equivalents in France study administration for a year and a half.

To show that running a cultural institution requires not only scholarly distinction but also business savvy, Mr. Resca points to Pompeii. The site was granted a special autonomous status in 1997, allowing it to control its own revenue, but he says that the administration there left €70 million ($90.3 million) unspent that could have gone to maintaining the structures and grounds.

Yet according to Stefano Baia Curioni, a professor of arts management at Milan’s Bocconi University, Pompeii has hardly been a fair test case of decentralization. Under the site’s highly qualified form of autonomy (suspended during a two-year state of emergency that ended last July), authority has been divided between the superintendent and a “city manager,” ensuring paralysis whenever the two disagree.

Neither official is authorized to make hiring decisions, so instead of replenishing the permanent maintenance staff, they have handed that work to outside contractors, with unsatisfactory results. This half-baked arrangement stems, Mr. Baia Curioni says, from resistance by culture ministry officials loath to cede control over one of the world’s richest archaeological troves.

At least as strong as the Italian cultural bureaucracy’s antipathy to decentralization is its suspicion of the private sector, which Mr. Baia Curioni says reflects both prejudice and practical experience. Curators are particularly resentful of profit- making companies that put on exhibitions in publicly owned museums and historic buildings (an increasingly common practice of which most visitors are probably unaware) where the objects on display fail to match the advertising hype.

The private sector’s role is nonetheless essential, Mr. Baia Curioni says. He notes that Pompeii’s ancient neighbor Herculaneum has received vital support for conservation research from the California-based Packard Humanities Foundation.

Even Our Italy’s president, Alessandra Mottola Molfino, a fierce critic of what she calls undue corporate influence on government arts and environment policy, sees a constructive role for free enterprise, praising the hoteliers who make preservation profitable by restoring entire medieval villages as alberghi diffusi (“scattered hotels”).

One such village is Santo Stefano di Sessanio in Abruzzo. The hill town’s restoration by Swedish businessman Daniele Kihlgren underwent the ultimate test in the earthquake that devastated much of the region in April 2009. As Ms. Mottola Molfino notes, “not a single brick fell.”

Author: Francis X. Rocca | Source: The Wall Street Journal [January 12, 2011]



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