ROME — First, two German tourists took an unauthorized dip in the Grand Canal in Venice, under the Rialto Bridge. Then an Austrian tourist broke the toe of a plaster statue of Napoleon’s sister while posing for a photograph at a museum in northern Italy. After that, a French tourist was caught red-handed using a black felt-tip pen to immortalize her stay in Florence on the city’s famed Ponte Vecchio.
Now Italian officials have set their sights on a young woman who took a selfie standing atop some newly reopened thermal baths in Pompeii, the fragile archaeological site.
“An investigation has been opened,” said Massimo Osanna, the outgoing director of the Pompeii site, adding that prosecutors in a nearby city were looking into the events.
The coronavirus pandemic may have crushed the tourism industry in Italy this year — delivering a significant blow to the country’s economy — but Italians say that should not give tourists who do come a free pass to run amok among the country’s cultural treasures.
“There’s a question of vigilance, but also of the unpreparedness of visitors,” read an editorial published Tuesday in the Rome daily La Repubblica. “What happened in Pompeii shows that the path to educating those who visit museums is still dotted with difficulties and unforeseen events,” a nod to countless episodes of vandalism and damage caused to cultural treasures by visiting tourists.
Past attempts to curb such behavior have not always been successful.
Lawmakers in the lower house of Parliament introduced a bill last month that would toughen penalties for those convicted of destroying Italy’s artistic patrimony. Culture Minister Dario Franceschini has been trying to put such a law on the books since 2016 but has not managed to get approval from both houses of Parliament.
“We’re not in the Wild West; laws for damaging cultural heritage do exist,” Franceschini’s spokesman, Mattia Morandi, said Tuesday. But the minister said he hoped that tougher penalties would be a greater deterrent to people “who might carve their names in the Colosseum or take mosaics from Pompeii,” not appreciating that they were destroying something priceless, he said.
“We have to make a better effort to educate tourists to respect our patrimony, to make them understand where they are,” said Osanna, who is to leave Pompeii next month to take up a job at the Culture Ministry overseeing Italy’s state museums.
Pompeii is a huge site and hard to monitor, he said.
“Even increasing security staff by the hundreds, there will always be some place that you can access without direct control,” Osanna said.
Instead of limiting access to the site, Osanna said it would be better to inform visitors that they were treading on fragile ground that belonged to all of humanity, “and that any harm done to the site is a harm done to the world’s patrimony.”
In the case of the statue whose toes were damaged in July, local authorities tracked the man using museum visitor logs. Prosecutors will look through Pompeii’s reservation system to try matching a name to the photograph that caught the selfie-taking tourist out of bounds. The incident took place July 24 but did not make news in Italy until this past weekend, after it was posted on several social media accounts.
The man who took the photograph, Antonio Irlando, said he thought the woman might have been unaware she was breaking the rules, as the rope that was supposed to block the brick stairs to the roof had been untied and cast to the side.
Irlando, an architect and president of a local association that monitors the Pompeii sites, said in an interview that after taking the photograph, he tried to reach the woman but she had gone by the time he got to the baths. Instead, he saw another family climbing the steps, unaware that they were off limits.
“I told them it wasn’t safe,” he said. “Who knows how many others went up and no one noticed.”
Irlando said his database was full of “very extreme” photographs of tourists behaving badly at Pompeii, like walking along the protected ancient walls of the city, or leaning against frescoes created some 2,000 years ago.
“It’s an atavistic vice,” he said. “If you want other photos of people who vandalized the site, just let me know.”