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Rome’s Falling Arches

Times Staff Writer

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.

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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.

One nonprofit organization, CittaItalia, launched a fundraising campaign last year that it hoped would break through the indifference, using pictures of Michelangelo’s sculptural masterpiece the David minus a leg and Pisa without the Leaning Tower. “Without your help,” the campaign slogan goes, “Italy could lose the very jewels that make the country unique in the world.”

CittaItalia says donations are up, but figures won’t be released until the end of June.

In addition to money, consciousness also needs to be raised, advocates say -- among indifferent Italians and clueless foreign visitors alike.

The Colosseum, in a sense, is straining under the weight of its own success. At what is by far the most popular single attraction in Italy, visitors can be abusive and unappreciative, the staff says. Many tourists come for a photo under its famous arches and travertine tiers without taking time to learn anything about its rich history, they say.

“This is not a social center. It’s not an airport terminal. It’s an archeological site, a ruin. It must be valued as such,” Piero Meogrossi, the architect in charge of the Colosseum, said as he stood against the gray dimpled boulders of the open-air stadium built nearly two millenniums ago by Jewish slaves of the Roman Empire.

“It needs to be cuddled,” said archeologist Rosella Rea, another member of the 12-person staff that oversees the monument.

As they spoke, a young man sporting a mohawk passed by, punching a wall scarred with graffiti, names scrawled by modern-day visitors. Schoolchildren, tourists talking into their video cameras and parents with baby strollers all competed for a better view. On an upper level, fans of rival soccer teams began a shouting match, their obscenity-laced chants echoing over the arena where gladiators once battled lions and one another.

Meogrossi and Rea could only cringe.

Maintenance of the ruin, they said, is a constant struggle: cleaning its stone facades, erecting metal gates in its porticos so they don’t collapse, sealing off upper tiers to prevent rainwater from seeping under the foundation. These days, scaffolding brackets the top level, and a center stage, built over where the lions used to be caged, has sat unfinished for years.

“Every piece of the monument needs restoration,” Meogrossi said, caressing a brick corner and toeing a section of pavement. “There are always other priorities, and the priorities come every hour.”

Meogrossi does not predict that the Colosseum will implode any time soon. But he does long for controls on tourism, such as restrictions on the size and frequency of crowds, as an important way to limit the damage. But such measures are unlikely.

The fate of Nero’s Palace has been especially abrupt. Known by its Latin name, the Domus Aurea (Golden House) was a grandiose construction complete with perfume-squirting ceiling tiles, fountains, gold and marble facades, man-made lakes and the most exquisite frescoes of the day.

Upon Nero’s death in AD 68, however, those who followed sought to wipe out the hated tyrant’s memory. The buildings were razed or buried, the marble and gold dismantled, the lakes drained and filled. Emperor Trajan built thermal baths on the site, and it eventually became an overgrown mound across from the Colosseum.

It would be 1,400 years before the underground remains were rediscovered, and longer still before recovery and restoration began. In 1999, 30 rooms of the 150-room Domus Aurea were opened to the public.

But former Culture Minister Rocco Buttiglione ordered the site shut again six months ago when inspectors determined that leaking water had precariously weakened the structure.

The disappointed staff at the Domus Aurea said money that was supposed to finance the continued maintenance and restoration work, including waterproofing and additional excavation, was never sufficient.

“It was like your baby. You raise it and care for it,” archeologist Ida Sciortino said. “No one liked having to close.”

Descending into the Domus, a visitor finds a network of cool, humid, cavernous tunnels, pavilions and vaults, much of it still embedded in a hillside. Ceilings are 30 feet high, and although the marble and gold wallcoverings are long gone, frescoes are still visible, some caked in dirt or calcium deposits produced by the humidity. Low lighting on the rough interior brick and stucco gives the feel of a postmodern art gallery, albeit one with quite a bit of scaffolding.

Workers are the only habitues these days at the remarkable edifice. Recently, a team was installing a metal railing around an especially rough patch of floor. A woman was using a large syringe to inject mortar into the wall for reinforcement. The tip-tap of dripping water, somewhere deep behind the walls, could be heard but not seen.

High-tech probes that looked like giant metallic praying mantises were placed strategically to measure humidity and the direction of the wind: Circulating air saps moisture from the walls, which in turn raises the humidity, a constant evaporation that one engineer likened to a barely discernible veil of water.

“There is no other building in the world like this, 150 rooms preserved from basement to ceiling,” Sciortino said. “It is really a shame the public cannot see it.”

Forlorn tourists still show up at the locked front gate, unaware that the Golden House is closed.

Buttiglione, before losing his job as culture minister when a new government took office last month, estimated that nearly $200 million would be needed to shore up the Palatine Hill, including the Colosseum and Domus areas. Bottini, the archeological official, said it would cost twice as much.

Whatever the figure, the budget doesn’t even begin to cover it. Ledo Prato, head of CittaItalia, the organization attempting to raise private money, says there is a chasm between available public funds and the costs of maintaining Italy’s vast treasures.

And the focus, he complains, is only on the several dozen most famous sites. There are hundreds more that don’t receive attention.

“Their very existence is in danger,” he said. “We must intervene today, to prevent disaster tomorrow.”


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