ROME (Reuters) - The 2,000-year-old “House of the Gladiators” in the ruins of ancient Pompeii collapsed on Saturday, sparking fresh debate on whether the Italian government is doing enough to safeguard a world treasure.
The stone house, on the main street of the famous archaeological site and measuring about 80 square m (860 square ft), collapsed just after dawn while Pompeii was closed to visitors, officials said.
Custodians discovered the collapse when they opened the UNESCO World Heritage site for the day.
Italian President Giorgio Napolitano called it “a shame for Italy” and demanded an explanation.
The structure was believed to be where gladiators gathered and trained and used as a club house before going to battle in a nearby amphitheatre in the city that was destroyed by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D.
Known officially by its Latin name “Schola Armaturarum Juventus Pompeiani,” the structure was not open to visitors but was visible from the outside as tourists walked along one of the ancient city’s main streets.
Its walls were decorated with frescoes of military themes.
The building was damaged by bombs during World War Two and was restored in the late 1940s. Officials speculated the collapse was caused by heavy rains but most commentators said longstanding neglect was probably the root cause.
Roberto Cecchi, undersecretary at the culture ministry, said that from first checks it appeared that parts of frescoes on the lower walls might be saved. Measures were being taken to thwart further collapse, officials said.
Art historians and residents for years have complained that the archaeological sites at Pompeii, among the world’s most important, were in a state of decay and needed better maintenance.
Two years ago the government declared a state of emergency for Pompeii. It lasted for about a year and allowed for extra funds and special measures but critics have said the special intervention was badly managed.
In his statement on the collapse, Cecchi vented his frustrations, saying “this latest episode of disorder” proved that sites like Pompeii needed constant monitoring and could not be maintained though ad hoc measures.
Opposition politicians were quick to criticize the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, particularly Culture Minister Sandro Bondi, for the site’s degradation.
Archaeologists and art historians have long complained about the poor upkeep of Pompeii, dogged by lack of investment, mismanagement, litter and looting.
Bogus tour guides, illegal parking attendants and stray dogs also plague visitors.
Some 2.5 million tourists visit Pompeii each year, making it one of Italy’s most popular attractions, and many have expressed shock at the site’s decay.
Two-thirds of the 66-hectare (165-acre) town, home to some 13,000 people in the Roman era, have been uncovered since serious excavations began some 260 years ago.
The remaining third is still buried and many modern building have been constructed over it.
Additional reporting by Silvia Aloisi, Editing by Michael Roddy