Monuments And Money

In A.D. 64 Nero built his palatial golden palace, the Domus Aurea, sparing no expense in the most elaborate display of decadence Rome had ever seen. Frescoes adorned the walls of its 150 rooms, inlaid with precious gems and exotic seashells. The ceilings were of carved ivory, and guests who attended his orgiastic feasts were showered with rose petals and misted with perfume. After Nero took his life in 68, Romans pillaged its riches. The famed Colosseum and the palaces of succeeding emperors arose on its ruins. But to this day, the remnants of the Domus Aurea have epitomized the excesses--and glories--of the Eternal City.

Lately, they've also come to symbolize the shortcomings of modern Rome. On Dec. 13, the ruins of the Domus Aurea were closed after authorities discovered that a neglected water leak had so undermined the structure's foundations as to endanger the entire edifice. Italy's Culture minister, Rocco Buttiglione, pointed an accusatory finger. The Italian government's indifference, he said, is jeopardizing many if not most of the country's archeological treasures. The chief problem? Money. "Rome is a huge open-air museum," Buttiglione proclaimed. "We are managing it with reduced personnel and budget constraints, and Italy must decide. Do we want to preserve our immense cultural heritage, or not?"

With so rich an archeological legacy--the underpinnings of Italy's immense tourist industry--cutting budgetary corners on historic preservation might not seem smart. But over the last five years, Silvio Berlusconi's center-right government has done just that. Its proposed 2006 budget calls for a 35 percent cut in funding for arts and architectural preservation, from 464 million euros to 300 million euros. The Domus Aurea, likely to be closed for at least two years, is not the only casualty. Rome's archeological superintendent, Angelo Bottini, warns of similar problems at other neglected sites. He points specifically to the Palatine Hill, where a 10-meter chunk of an ancient wall slid down a slope into the Roman Forum last month, as well as to the Baths of Caracalla, where one segment of the ruins is on the verge of collapse. Emergency repairs to the Domus Aurea are projected to cost 5 million euros. But Bottini, who spends his time juggling potential disasters, estimates that he needs an additional 260 million euros to shore up other sites. "We don't even know what surprises are next," he adds.

Cleary, Italy's cultural finances are a shambles. State aid has grown so scanty that many heritage sites must pay for themselves through ticket sales. The Colosseum and Palatine Hill, among Rome's most popular sites, receive more than 3.5 million visitors a year at an average 8 euros a ticket. But last year's 21 million euros in revenues went almost entirely to paying salaries and utilities, with little left for general maintenance. The Domus Aurea was Rome's third most-visited paid site last year, receiving 155,000 visitors. Like it, the Baths of Caracalla, drawing 211,000 visitors a year, may also soon close for safety reasons growing out of an inability to fund repairs. In desperation, Bottini is urging the Culture Ministry to start collecting an entrance fee for free sites like the Roman Forum, which has charged no admission for the past eight years in an effort to open the city's history to those on restricted incomes. "There's no choice," says Bottini, explaining that without raising visitation charges "we can't afford to keep sites safe."

Italy's cultural cuts are not restricted to the country's dilapidated archeological monuments. Increasingly, they are spreading to the performing arts as well. Italy's 13 opera houses receive far less in government subsidies than in other countries, says Stephane Lissner of La Scala in Milan. In 2005 La Scala received 46 million euros; by contrast, the Paris Opera got 94 million euros and Vienna's Staatsoper was granted 51.5 million euros. Last month, opera stars Barbara Vignudelli of La Scala and Manola Colangeli from the Teatro dell'Opera in Rome joined a hunger strike by artists protesting the cuts. (Each lost more than 10 pounds, requiring new costumes.) Directors of the houses sponsored concerts of famous requiems by Mozart and Verdi. Warns Lissner: "The entire art world in Italy is in danger."

The government says it has little choice but to stick to its proposed budget. Berlusconi has to eliminate 16 billion euros in spending in order to trim the country's deficit from 4.3 percent of GDP in 2005 to 3.8 percent in 2006, still above the 3 percent guideline set by the European Union. But arts supporters claim the cuts are distributed unfairly. Otherwise profitable soccer teams and national TV stations (in which the prime minister holds personal stakes) will continue to receive generous subsidies under the new budget. That's especially angered Buttiglione, who threatens to quit if arts aren't made a priority. "The resources are totally insufficient," he complains.

Berlusconi, meanwhile, dismisses such protests as "absolutely useless--a tired old ritual that will have no impact whatsoever." How apt. According to legend, Nero fiddled (playing his lyre, actually) as he watched the fire of A.D. 64 that cleared the quarter where he intended to build his Domus Aurea--deaf to the calls of Romans begging him to save the city's treasures. Who's fiddling now?