Conservation Italy

Calls grow in Italy to put Pompeii under new management

Collapse of the House of the Gladiators highlights failures at the historic site

Buried 79AD, excavated after 1748, destroyed 2010

POMPEII. The House of the Gladiators was not the only thing damaged on 6 November: the reputation of the special commission that the Italian state brought in to save the site in June 2008 now also lies in ruins. But as recently as July this year, as the two-year tenure of Pompeii’s commissioner, Marcello Fiori, drew to a close, culture minister Sandro Bondi had declared Fiori’s period of office a resounding success, saying: “Pompeii is finally saved!”.

Although originally created to deal with disasters such as earthquakes, the Italian state has increasingly used special commissions to over-ride Italy’s complicated and rigid legal system. Until Fiori’s appointment, Pompeii was managed by the superintendent of Naples, who reported to the ministry of culture. Although the superintendency was left in place, power and funds (totalling €79m), were invested in the special commission.

According to site engineers, the House of the Gladiators collapsed after torrential rain made the ground unstable, causing the heavy concrete roof, built in 1946 to protect the structure, to fall through. The subsequent furore in the international media shone a spotlight onto weak management of the site, and in Italy the opposition politicians are calling for Bondi’s resignation, blaming the commission for a series of poor decisions. Critics accuse Fiori of focusing too heavily on tourist initiatives at the site, including the construction of a cycle track, toilet facilities, a new restaurant and the controversial restoration of the Grand Theatre and multimedia presentations, instead of core preservation work. The rounding up and rehousing of 55 stray dogs at a cost of €86,000 has drawn particular ridicule.

Conservation

Fiori has defended his record, arguing the improvements were necessary and that he had spent €65m, more than 80% of the budget, on conservation. This figure is disputed by Gianfranco Cerasoli, the leader of the Italian Labour Union (UIL), who maintains the figure is closer to 50% and the rest was frittered on trendy multimedia projects. The Italian Court of Auditors has now intervened and is examining Fiori’s two-year tenure. It has already declared itself unhappy with the special commission system, suggesting that Fiori’s appointment by the government may be “illegal”.

The collapse of the house has highlighted other management problems at the site. The special commission arguably undermined the position of the superintendent of Naples and Pompeii, with three leaving the post in the past year alone. The current superintendent, Jean­nette Papadopoulous (who is the general director for archaeology at the ministry of culture), only accepted the role in October as an emergency stopgap, out of what she describes as “a sense of duty”. Last month, she was one of a group of 17 archaeology superintendents across Italy who wrote an open letter of protest to Bondi after he blamed the state of Italy’s archaeological sites on the “managerial incompetence of the superintendents”.

The Italian government is now investigating the possibility of transferring the management of Pompeii to a new foundation, with a board of trustees representing public and private institutions with interests in the site. A special ministry of culture commission, headed by department officials Mario Resca, Antonella Recchia, Enrico Bellezza and—perhaps surprisingly—Fiori, is due to announce its findings later this month.

Meanwhile, Unesco is sending a special delegation to Pompeii, and Mounir Bouchenaki, the director of Unesco conservation body Iccrom, says the government should set up a permanent unit specialising in risk management to prevent any further collapses.

Additional reporting by Eliza Apperly

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