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In this file photo, tourists gather in front of the Trevi fountain in Rome. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)
In this file photo, tourists gather in front of the Trevi fountain in Rome. (Alessandra Tarantino/AP)

Why in the Eternal City, restoring landmarks can take an eternity Add to ...

For a country blessed with 49 UNESCO Heritage Sites, more than any other country, Italy pays remarkably little attention to its past. Its annual budget for the upkeep of its cultural treasures has fallen by half in recent years, to about €500-million, and it shows. The second destruction of Pompeii, where walls are falling down and priceless frescoes are being looted, is under way.

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In Rome, even the most popular ancient and Renaissance sites can suffer appalling neglect. The Colosseum, the world’s best-known ancient monument, has been blackened by diesel soot. A couple of years ago, falling stone and plaster raised fears of serious injury to visitors.

Since Italy’s financial state is equally appalling, the chances of a government-funded restoration spree is as likely as Silvio Berlusconi banning showgirls from his villas.

Rome’s newish mayor, Ignazio Marino, an American-trained organ-transplant surgeon, has a solution, at least for his adopted town. Declare Rome an open city whose rich heritage belongs not just to Romans or Italians, but, in his words, “to the heritage of mankind.”

Translation: We’d like rich foreigners to pay for our neglect.

To that end, on Monday in Rome, Mr. Marino summoned the international press and the ambassadors of the Group of Eight countries, China, South Korea and a few others to plead for restoration funds. In a rather slick presentation complete with video, he identified some 20 projects in dire need of attention. The collective bill would be about €200-million. “We can’t manage by ourselves,” he said.

Rome has played the poverty game well since the recession threatened to turn Italy into a Latin version of Greece. The previous mayor managed to get wealthy corporations and businessmen to sponsor a few of the city’s best-known sites, each of them worn down by millions of tourists. Diego Della Valle, the billionaire chairman of the Tod’s luxury leather goods group, has put up €22-million to clean up the Colosseum. The Italian fashion house Fendi, which is owned by France’s LVMH, is doing the same to the Trevi Fountain. Bulgari, the luxury jeweller, is fixing up the Spanish Steps and Japanese fashion tycoon Yuzo Yagi is paying for the restoration of the ancient, Egyptian-style pyramid that overlooks the Protestant Cemetery, where the English poet Keats is buried.

But Mr. Marino’s plans are far more ambitious in terms of scope and funding. The projects’ costs range from €120-million to restore the Museum of Rome, a national treasure, to the €6-million for the ancient “Sette Sale” – Seven Halls – cisterns on the Colle Oppio hill overlooking the Colosseum. The reservoirs, a marvel of hydraulic engineering, fed the Trajan’s bath houses nearby. Another project is the restoration of the magnificent mausoleum of the emperor Augustus. The city of Rome had hoped to finish the job this year, to mark the second millennium since Augustus’s death, but ran out of funds. “We have not been very smart,” Mr. Marino said. “We’ve only known about this for 2,000 years.”

The projects are worthy and needed. They would boost cultural tourism, the only industry in Italy that is holding up. It would put a new sheen in the city that has been lacking since 2000, when the Rome prettied itself up for the Catholic Church’s jubilee year. It would remove some modern architectural horrors that blight the heart of ancient Rome, such as the road, the Via Alessandrina, that splits the imperial forums.

Rome wasn’t built in a day and won’t be restored in a day. The amount sought by the mayor is a lot, but that’s not the big problem. The biggie is Italy’s dire reputation for grinding slow work and endemic corruption. Projects get announced all the time and then go into limbo for years. Funds get skimmed off by corrupt contractors. Last year, the restorer of Pompeii was arrested and charged with fraud. Last week, Venice mayor Giorgio Orsoni and 30 others were arrested in a sweeping corruption investigation related to the underwater “Moses” barriers that are being installed to prevent the lagoon city from flooding. The allegation is that about €20-million was diverted to bribe politicians.

Mr. Marino admitted that Italy’s reputation for slow work and corruption in public projects might harm his money raising effort. His plan is to have Rome’s restoration work overseen by an international board of directors, not local authorities, who would administer a master fund that might be called “Friends of Rome” or similar. Transparency would be promised.

As a resident of Rome and lover of its antiquities, I hope Mr. Marino gets his wish. But I cannot say I am optimistic, based on a local project I know well. Two years ago, the delightful old food market in Testaccio, on the southern edge of Rome’s historic centre, was needlessly torn down to make way for a modern eyesore a few hundred metres away. The site of the old market is being turned into an open-air square (piazza) complete with fountain, a relatively minor job at relatively minor expense – maybe €1-million (the fountain already exists; it just has to be transferred from a small park nearby).

Two years later, the piazza is still a boarded off construction site where workers are rarely seen. The word is that the piazza will be a no-go area for another year, at least. No one seems to know where the money went or whether new funds are coming.

Follow on Twitter: @ereguly

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