A handout combination of photo released by the Italian culture minister press office on March 18 shows an ancient fresco from Pompeii (top) and the same fresco after thieves removed the portrait of a Greek deity from it as they broke into a closed area of the UNESCO World Heritage landmark in Pompeii. (AFP photo)
Thieves have stolen part of an ancient fresco from Pompeii, breaking in to a closed area of the UNESCO World Heritage landmark and chipping off a portrait of a Greek deity.
A custodian doing rounds last week discovered "the removal of a part of a fresco in the House of Neptune," where a depiction of the goddess Artemis had been "chiseled off with a metallic object," the Roman site's curator department said in a statement Tuesday.
Police have launched an investigation into the theft of the 20 centimetre (eight-inch) wide fragment, which occurred in an area closed to the public, leaving a glaring white slash in the pink-toned fresco, where a second Greek character now stands forlornly alone.
The discovery sparked outrage in Italy, with Il Messaggero describing it as "a shame for the country", made doubly embarrassing by the recent appointment of a new "super-superintendent" for the site.
The theft comes on the back of a series of collapses in the long-neglected ruins near Naples, which have drawn international concern.
The Temple of Venus and walls of a tomb were damaged earlier this month after heavy rains, prompting the European Union to urge Italy to "take care of Pompeii, because it is emblematic not only for Europe but also for the world."
In response, Italy said it would unblock some two million euros ($2.8 million) to help oil the wheels of a major EU-backed project to restore the site.
Prime Minister Matteo Renzi also appealed to private investors to help restore the ruins.
Last year, conservation workers began a 105-million-euro makeover of Pompeii, funded by the EU to the tune of 41.8 million euros.
But according to the Corriere della Sera daily, only 588,000 euros have been spent so far -- just 0.56 percent of the funds.
The project is seen as crucial to the survival of the 44-hectare site in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, the volcano that destroyed the city of Pompeii in 79 AD.