Italy's neglected monuments.

Sustainable management is needed for Italy's smaller sites.

Nestling in the hills 10km north of Viterbo in northern Lazio there is a largely forgotten but nonetheless impressive Roman theatre: the theatre of Ferento. Built to hold 1,200 spectators, it is small in comparison to some of Lazio’s other Roman theatres such as the one at Ostia Antica (which was able to accommodate about 6,000 toga-clad theatre-goers) or the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome (about 11,000 seats). But with its 26 arches framing the skyline and a backdrop of rolling green countryside, the Roman theatre of Ferento has its own charm.

In the first centuries of imperial Rome it was the hub of entertainment in Ferentum, a small town with Etruscan origins. Not that you could tell these days; it’s accessible along a small country road and the site is halfabandoned and overgrown.

It hasn’t been opened to the public on a daily basis for many years – when the last custodian retired several years ago, he wasn’t replaced. The only times the public can visit now is during Italy’s Culture Week in April, and during a festival that takes place in the theatre for a few days each summer. Otherwise, the grass is allowed to grow in the cracks and debris accumulates from one season to the next.

The state of Ferento’s theatre has even caught the attention of the popular investigative television show Striscia la Notizia, which highlighted the site’s neglect in a programme broadcast in March. Presenters Fabio and Mingo visited Ferento and found that the archaeological site was in “a really ruinous state.” Mingo joked: “The ancient Romans would have put on plays here: comedies, tragedies; the tragedy we see today is the state of this archaeological site. The only spectators today are the weeds and dead branches that have invaded the place.”

The programme caused a local stir, with Viterbo’s deputy mayor Enrico Maria Contardo explaining that the maintenance of Ferento is not the responsibility of the municipal authority, but is overseen by the archaeological superintendency for Etruria Meridionale, the body charged with protecting Italy’s southern Etruscan heritage. However, as a result of the programme deputy mayor Contardo pledged to ensure that a plan is put in place to conserve and protect Ferento.

And yet this state of semi-abandon is not unusual for Italy’s smaller sites and monuments. Of the 400 archaeological sites, monuments and museums owned by the state and managed by the ministry of heritage and cultural activities in 2009, the 49 biggest sites attracted 85 per cent of the visitors, leaving the vast majority of the smaller state-owned sites with just 15 per cent of the visitors. Funding for cultural heritage has been cut and sites such as Pompeii and the Colosseum have their own well-publicised funding problems, but for small sites and monuments, the financial situation is even bleaker.

“In Italy the problem is management,” says professor Luigi Manfra, a specialist in economic and environmental projects at Unimed University in Rome. “It’s not so much a problem for the big monuments, which are part of Italy’s image abroad, but it is a serious situation for the numerous smaller monuments, many of which are abandoned.”

Manfra has studied the site of Ferento from a socio-economic point of view, part of a multi-disciplinary project to identify means of sustainable financing for the site, part of a wider project that considered several other Roman theatres in Italy as well as the Roman theatre at Bulla Regia in Tunisia. Unimed was also asked to evaluate the management of the theatre at Ferento.

“The question we wanted to explore was how we can reduce the cost of these smaller monuments to the public budget. One of the conclusions we came to is that management needs to be improved,” says Manfra.

“We analysed the site from a socio-economic point of view, in the context of the Viterbo region,” he continues, explaining that the local culture and heritage form an inter-related economy that involves tourism, gastronomy, handicrafts and art, as well as many other sectors – and each sector influences the others.

The study took inspiration from archaeological sites in other countries, one of which is the archaeological park of Pont du Gard, in southern France. This is one of France’s top five tourist attractions and a prime example of Roman engineering. The management of Pont du Gard in recent years has also been exemplary, and shows how efficient and sustainable management could also benefit smaller sites such as Ferento in Italy.

Once overrun with road traffic, illegally-built structures and tourist shops, a plan was put in place in 1996 to pedestrianise the Pont du Gard site, build a museum, auditoriums, bookshop and restaurant, while creative itineraries were introduced (the bridge can be explored on foot, by bicycle or by canoe).

Three of the perceived success factors were collaboration with scientific institutions and local organisations, the ability to attract different types of visitors (including school groups, wedding receptions and business meetings), as well as involvement with local cultural and gastronomic events.

It is hoped that the authorities in charge of Ferento can gain something from the success of a site like Pont du Gard. The University of Viterbo is already using the site for didactic purposes and it is hoped this collaboration will continue and develop. The theatre also hosts a series of concerts each summer. This season’s concerts run from 14 July to 4 August and include performances by Arisa (runner-up in the San Remo music festival this year) and the Young Russian Ballet. For more information visit www.teatroferento.it.

Bija Knowles

editorial@wantedinrome.com