November 14, 2010

Ca' di Gladiatori Crumbles

A sad day in Pompeii, as the House of the Gladiators collapses. Italy has been suffering heavy autumn rains, and the unearthed ancient ruins of the world's most unique and miraculous archeological site are not up to it.

Italy, like much of the rest of the world, suffers from a crunch in money and its government feels the pinch too. It is obviously not directly essential to the welfare of the Italian people that they keep the ruins at Pompeii in good shape -- although they are a tourist attraction that brings a lot of money in to the Campanian economy so one would think that there is a financial calculus going on somewhere. Private funding or funding from research institutions outside of Italy is also drying up. It's very easy to look at something like this and fault the government for allowing the nation's patrimony to degrade to this point. At the same time, it's easy to anticipate the government's rebuttal -- we only have so much money; how many ambulances and hospitals should we not have bought, how many soldiers should we have not paid, how much election fraud should we have tolerated or crimes left unprosecuted, to free up the money that was needed to preserve la Ca'di Gladiatori?

So the larger issue is that Pompeii is one of the ways that Italy can distinguish itself as a nation -- trading in part on its rich history and in part on its good fortune to have such an asset and in part on its commitment to maintaining, studying, and making available its unique culture. Every nation has such cultural assets, unique to itself. If we take the point of view that culture is not a job for the government, then something like Pompeii has to be handled at least in part by private enterprise (perhaps in the form of a private charity), or vanish entirely. Sometimes that private money is there and sometimes it isn't. And some things are of great cultural value and some are of more moderate importance.

To say that the degree of state involvement and the financial commitment of a community and a government must be addressed on a case-by-case basis is not a very satisfying or principled way of looking at the issue. But it is probably the only realistic result.

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