Why Can't Rome Protect Its Cultural Treasures?

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The Roman Coliseum is not only one of the world's most visited monuments; it is also one of the most threatened. The outer walls are stained black by exhaust fumes from buses, mopeds, and cars that whiz around the ancient amphitheater as if it were a traffic circle. Reverberations can be felt from the subway trains far below the cobblestones. Permanent scaffolding shores up the subterranean corridors where gladiators and animals once waited to fight to their death. Four stories above street level, rusting metal braces and giant bungees hold the ancient travertine blocks in place.

So it shouldn't have been a surprise when, just before dawn Sunday morning, three chunks of Roman mortar fell from an arched ceiling, crumpling the safety netting meant to catch such debris. Had the ceiling collapsed a few hours later, it could have easily killed a tourist. Weeks of rain and subnormal temperatures were blamed, but the reality is that the Coliseum, like many of Rome's ancient treasures, is falling apart because no one seems to care.

Rome faces the daunting problem of how to maintain its rich history without sacrificing the needs of its modern citizens—and, in recent years, budget cuts (and the demand for modern infrastructure) have won out over preservation and arts. The culture ministry has cut a third from its entire budget, and not just from the monuments and museums. Opera singers and theater workers went on strike this week in protest cuts that may close opera houses. The monuments will ultimately fare worse. Instead of shoring up obvious fractures before something happens, city workers spend the bulk of their time reacting to emergencies like last Sunday's. Funds earmarked for preservation are often spent in a panic, literally picking up the pieces. In the last year, ceilings and walls have collapsed at other important monuments, including Nero's Golden Palace and the Palatine Hill. Parts of the Aurelian Wall are now propped up with wooden support beams. Sections of the Roman Forum are cordoned off with red and white tape, deemed too dangerous for tourists to visit. Since ticket proceeds go entirely to the maintenance of each monument, closures are financially devastating, making the dangers that closed the sites even harder to fix.

At the Coliseum, which attracts nearly 4 million visitors per year, pathetic preservation measures like flimsy safety netting and metal braces put in place almost 30 years ago are now inadequate. And a more recent effort—to sandblast the traffic soot off the porous exterior walls in 1992—was abandoned after the city and key sponsors ran out of money. In the meantime, decades of traffic, vandalism, and neglect have taken their toll. "The Coliseum suffers from its 2,000 years of history," says Adriano La Regina, superintendent of Rome's antiquities. "It needs constant, intensive surveillance and intervention; it is like a cancer patient with a bad prognosis." The structure has an annual maintenance budget of just $867,000—half of what the Ministry of Culture says is necessary to save it. Now an emergency restoration plan by the culture ministry is in place, at a cost of $8.4 million. No one knows yet where the money will come from.

The ambitious project, set to begin later this month, again includes a much-needed exterior cleaning and replacement of key support structures—including new metal bands that hold some of the marble in place. Stone archways will be reinforced and safety netting under the fragile ancient ceilings will be updated. The area around the Coliseum will also be cordoned off, and pedestrian traffic near the monument will be restricted in case of further collapse during the work. In 2000, the city of Rome installed a gladiator exhibit on the second tier, complete with an elevator and gift shop. Now, the museum and elevator will likely be removed, and parts of the ancient amphitheater will be permanently closed to the public. Plans to open the third tier and the subterranean tunnel system to attract even more visitors were also in the works before last Sunday's collapse. Those areas will likely now never be accessible to the public.

The Coliseum is open again, but a quota system is now enforced to control the number of visitors who are in the ancient amphitheater at any given time. This week the city will consider an emergency measure to limit traffic on the busy throughway that passes within a few hundred feet of the building, turning the entire area into a pedestrian island and diverting thousands of cars and buses that pass by each day.

In recent years, the city of Rome has rented out the Coliseum as a venue for special events like concerts to help offset the maintenance costs. But after Sunday's collapse, all events scheduled for the busy summer season were canceled or moved to other venues. The vibration from loud speakers is simply too risky, according to La Regina. Smaller indoor events were also canceled, including boxing matches in the ancient underground cages and private VIP dinners and fashion shows, which were scheduled to be held on a wooden floor erected above the subterranean tunnels. The lost revenue from renting out the Coliseum will now have to come from other sources.

According to an archeologist for the culture ministry, Francesco Maria Giro, the priorities have now changed. "Sunday's event was small, but it is yet another wake up call and confirms the need to study the ancient monuments of Rome," he said during a walking tour of the Coliseum on Wednesday. "A plan of intervention and ongoing maintenance now supersedes everything else." But until the government realizes that increasing, not cutting, its culture budget should be the real priority, saving Rome's cherished symbols will be a race against time.