The shocking decision to create a massive landfill within a few hundred meters of Hadrian’s Villa, one of most well known, important cultural heritage sites in the world is, to say the least, astonishing.  See last December’s CBS news video for a summary of the landfill project.

In light of the recent pummeling from the media that Italy has undergone due to the lamentable condition of the heritage management at Pompeii and the frequent fragments falling off the Colosseum in the past couple of years, it seems even more shocking to learn about the new plight of yet another world-famous site.

And, of course, in the face of it, one frequently asks, but what can I do?  What difference can I make?  With the decision announced late last year (to be confirmed this spring), there was not much time to act, either.   Luckily, a dear colleague and friend, Prof. Bernard Frischer, picked up the torch, as it were, and in a few minutes created a petition on ipetition, reaching out, first, to colleagues in the fields of classics and archaeology.  Early on, he also contacted my organization, asking us to sponsor the initiative; I quickly agreed.  Between Frischer’s outreach and my AIRC colleagues’ tweeting and blogging, we have been happy to see the numbers to quickly grow to almost 2800 signatures in just 2 weeks’ time.   The petition is starting to have a life of its own- and we’ve done our part to personally deposit, for the record, the signatures with the proper authorities in Rome (the end result of the petition).

Why are people so upset?   Why do they care, regardless of nationality?  Just read some of the comments on the ipetition, from students and members of the public to esteemed professors of Oxford Jas Elsner and Salvatore Settis of La Normale di Pisa to organizations like World Monuments Fund.

One look at Hadrian’s Villa from satellite photos, or the many, famous “plastico” models of the site, or, if you are lucky enough, a trip to the site, make you understand why. (See this great, academic site for recent studies of Hadrian’s Villa).

The emperor Hadrian’s organic creation of space over 250 acres represents some of the best examples of Roman architecture at the height of the empire.   You can’t help but fall in love with the site, surrounded by olive and cypress trees, isolated from the effects of urban development.  (Read UNESCO’s short summary of the site.)

Let’s put this landfill project into perspective with what’s going on with cultural heritage around the world.  A recent assessment of China has revealed the devastating effect of unchecked urban expansion on heritage sites (circa 44,000 heritage sites and monuments lost). Social unrest and war threatens sites in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Egypt, and Libya.  Back in Italy, so many of the sites are at a critical juncture, after so many years of comprehensive neglect and/or prolonged exposure after excavations (from Pompeii to Ostia Antica).  A lack of comprehensive management plans and lack of implementation of funds toward the critically-needed daily care of sites have led the public at large to conclude that Italy does not care about its heritage, even as the number of tourists is rapidly increasing in the same sites.  The reality is vastly more complicated than these brief observations.  While funding is challenged, new private sponsorship is on the horizon (e.g., Colosseum, though not without problems of implementation).  And there are many success stories.  In our upcoming Unlisted 2 conference we’ll talk about the challenges to cultural heritage in archaeological sites worldwide (and some solutions using social media and local financial models concentrating on local communities)  and highlight the success that the Via Appia Antica park has become.  This includes the superb work at Villa dei Quintilii (recently filmed for the newest Woody Allen movie, Nero Fiddled).

Overall, though, Italy is perceived, through its face-value lack of investment in its heritage management (vs. most European countries) ,  the garbage-strewn, often abandoned heritage sites,  rampant graffiti, and less-than-caring attitude of employees at sites– as not consistently caring about its heritage.   And this is despite all of the great work that Italy  and important Italian organizations (e.g. Italia Nostra, FAI) are doing.

On all accounts, it is agreed by those signers of the petition that the landfill will do irreparable harm– not just to the site itself–  but to Italy itself.   This is a PR disaster in the making; Italy must show it can avert this new crisis to its cultural heritage. The Economist recently likened Prime Minister Mario Monti to Cincinnatus who selflessly devoted his life to his country in time of need.  Let’s hope that Cincinnatus can arrive in time from the fields to save one of Italy’s great treasures- Hadrian’s Villa.