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Ancient Pompeii could be ruined by modern problems

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• A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

Nearly 2,000 years after a blanket of volcanic ash from Mt. Vesuvius suffocated it, the ancient Roman city Pompeii faces a fresh set of threats to its existence. Years of neglect, political squabbling, and bureaucratic red tape are threatening to rob Italy of one of its greatest historical treasures, critics say.

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Two million visitors a year tramp along Pompeii’s wheel-rutted streets and explore its ancient shops, baths, and villas, but they are often disappointed to find many of the key sites closed. Frustration is evident. On a sign outside the famous House of the Vettii, closed in perpetual restoration, a disappointed Italian visitor has scrawled “Vergogna” – “shameful.” It is emblematic of much of Pompeii, where tourists encounter rotting wooden fences, weed-infested streets, exquisite frescoes scarred by modern graffiti, packs of stray dogs, and a bewildering lack of information.

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A recent editorial in a respected broadsheet here said Pompeii’s demise reflects Italy’s “sloppiness and inefficiencies.” Lack of money is another. The cash-strapped Berlusconi government has cut funds allotted to the maintenance of ancient sites from ¤30 million (about US$42 million) in 2007 to just under ¤19 million (about $26 million) this year.

But the problems are also symptomatic of the scale and complexity of the Roman city. Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, a British professor of archaeology who has worked there for more than 20 years, says Italy faces a herculean task.

“It’s such a gigantic challenge to preserve a city where there is such a terrifying rate of disintegration,” he says. “It’s easy to fantasize that the British or the Americans or the French would look after it better, but none of them have ever had to prove themselves with a challenge on this scale.”