LAND OF RUINS

The reopening of Rome's magnificent Palazzo delle Esposizioni this month was to be the premier social event of the year. Romans proudly called it "our MoMA," destined to become one of the most prominent cultural centers in Europe. City fathers touted its flawless restoration, costing nearly 20 million euros. The building would have been stupendous--if the ceiling hadn't fallen in two months ago, plunging eight workers onto a pile of sharp rubble and narrowly missing a group of building inspectors who had just left the room below. With a criminal investigation underway, work has stopped and Italians are shrugging off the incident as a bizarre but isolated incident.

Bizarre, yes. Isolated? Hardly. Italy is no stranger to crumbling architecture-- UNESCO has rated 35 percent of Italy's World Heritage Sites as "at risk," not from environmental factors or natural disasters but from "neglect, pollution and indifference." But these days the decay isn't confined to historic ruins. Full city blocks in Florence are cordoned off with red-and-white police tape to protect passersby from falling travertine facades. According to the Legambiente, Italy's environment agency, 40 percent of Italian public schools are in "urgent need of serious maintenance"; authorities in Rome have tasked schoolchildren to report cracks in walls and other potential hazards. In villages of Umbria and Tuscany, cobblestone streets have swallowed cars after underground supports collapsed during recent rains. A slew of ceilings have fallen in on buildings in Rome and Naples. Some have collapsed entirely, among them a two-story apartment house in Liguria that recently killed a young girl as she slept.

Something other than age is at work here. In many cases, experts say, stricter building standards and basic enforcement of existing rules could prevent catastrophe. In Rome alone, the Legambiente reports that 48.3 percent of renovation projects are done without authorization or building inspection. This means no one is checking concrete stability or ensuring that materials meet safety regulations, according to agency officials. Contracts are often given out without public scrutiny or permits--often they're issued long after work on a project is completed--setting the stage for lax construction, or worse.

Schools are a particular problem. One in six is over the legal limit in asbestos use, and the Legambiente claims that 73.2 percent do not have basic fire-safety certificates. In earthquake zones, as many as 60 percent of schools are at serious risk of "structural trauma" from even a mild tremor, according to the U.S.-based Multidisciplinary Center for Earthquake Engineering Research. On Halloween 2002, a moderate earthquake in the tiny village of San Giuliano in the central region of Molise killed 27 first graders and teachers when their elementary school collapsed. But MCEER's Terri Norton attributes the loss of life less to the earthquake than to "poor-quality materials and construction."

There is little incentive to change. Earlier this year Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi promised sweeping amnesties that would allow renegade builders to pay a penalty to "legalize" their clandestine structures and renovations after the fact. Berlusconi says the amnesties will generate revenues of 24 billion euros for the state's coffers. As if lost tax and permit revenues were the main problem, rather than the lost lives of citizens killed by crumbling walls and ceilings.