Antiquities and Archaeology Conservation Italy

Italy allows Unesco into Pompeii

The Roman city risks joining the World Heritage in Danger list

Vesuvius looms over Pompeii. Part of the site is collapsing (top right) including the House of the Gladiators (bottom right)

Pompeii is in crisis. A Unesco report has identified serious problems with the World Heritage Site, including structural damage to buildings, vandalism and a lack of qualified staff. Unesco’s director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin, tells The Art Newspaper: “The state of conservation is a problem, because of a lack of maintenance of very fragile structures. Visitor services need a dramatic improvement.”

The collapse of a column at Pompeii on 22 December raised further alarm. The column was in a pergola in the courtyard of the House of Loreio Tiburtino, whose adjacent rooms have very fine frescoes.

The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD killed Pompeii’s inhabitants but preserved their buildings. The city was covered with ash, and it was only after its rediscovery in 1748 that excavations began. In 1997, Unesco designated it a World Heritage Site. The Pompeii crisis came to a head with the collapse of the Schola Armaturarum, known as the House of the Gladiators, in November 2010, along with three further collapses later in the month. This was after extremely heavy rain.

Unesco sent a mission supervised by Christopher Young, the head of world heritage and international policy at English Heritage, who says that Pompeii represents “the world’s most important Roman remains, in terms of what it tells us about daily life”. He was assisted by two Paris-based specialists representing the International Council on Monuments and Sites: Jean-Pierre Adam, a professor at the Ecole du Louvre, and Alix Barbet, the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Their report, which has had virtually no international press coverage, was submitted last June to Unesco’s World Heritage Committee in Paris. It covers Pompeii and the nearby sites of Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata, on the ­outskirts of Naples.

The Unesco report says that the “conditions that caused [the Schola Armaturarum] collapses are widespread within the site”. Storms last autumn raised fears of further significant damage, but so far it has not been serious.

Although much of Pompeii ­remains in good repair, the problems are numerous, including “inappropriate restoration ­methods and a general lack of qualified staff… restoration projects are outsourced and the quality of the work of the contractors is not being assessed. An efficient drainage system is lacking, ­leading to water infiltration and excessive moisture that gradually degrades the structural condition of the buildings as well as their decor. The mission was also concerned by the amount of plant growth, particularly ivy.”

Staffing at Pompeii remains a fundamental problem. The structure is “very rigid”, with “jobs ­being secure until retirement”, making it “virtually impossible to recruit new staff”. Although around 470 people are employed at Pompeii, it is “very short” of professional staff, there are “very few” maintenance workers and only 23 guards are on site at any one time.

The guards do not wear uniforms and fail to display their badges. The experts observed them “grouped together in threes or fours”, which meant there was a limited presence on the enormous site. Since 1987, the number of guards has been reduced by a quarter while visitor numbers have increased considerably.

Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.

A further problem is that much of Pompeii is “closed”. In 1956, 66 restored houses were open to visitors, but this number has fallen to 15 (only five of which are always open). “Large areas of Pompeii are not accessible to ­visitors owing to the lack of guards, so accessible parts are overvisited and suffer considerably from visitor erosion,” according to the report. The mission found that the most serious vandalism was in houses that are closed to visitors, because of “the derisory effectiveness of efforts to prohibit access”.

Management changes have resulted in further problems. In July 2008, the Italian government declared Pompeii to be in a “state of emergency”, putting it under special administration until July 2010 (two commissioners served during this period: Renato Profili and then Marcello Fiori). There have been four successive superintendents since September 2009: Mariarosaria Salvatore, Giuseppe Proietti, Jeannette Papadopoulos and Teresa Elena Cinquantaquattro.

The Unesco mission found that, although a management plan was drawn up in 2008, “site staff were not able to show clearly that the plan was actually used”. Scarce resources have been diverted from conservation and maintenance to “non-urgent” projects, such as the reconstruction of the theatre. The report says that such projects were “probably done with an educational aim in mind, but may also reflect a certain attraction for ‘entertainment archaeology’.”

“Uncontrolled development” near Pompeii is also criticised. At its meeting last June, Unesco approved a resolution saying that it “deeply regrets” not having been informed about the construction of “a large concrete building” north of the Porta di Nola. This is to be used by archaeologists for offices and storage.

Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, the superintendent of Pompeii from 1995 to 2009, says that the report is “very meticulous”. Its proposals are along the lines of those suggested during his tenure, but “delays” were caused mainly by staffing problems. Guzzo welcomes Unesco’s involvement, hoping it will “spur the Italian government to give Pompeii more resources, both financial and professional”.

With Unesco poised to assist Italian specialists, an action plan could be developed. This should provide a basis for spending the €105m that has been committed for Pompeii by the European Union. However, there are some concerns that the project may be affected by the withdrawal of $65m a year of Unesco funding from the US, following the admission of Palestine in October.

Unesco has asked the Italian authorities to introduce monitoring of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata by 1 February, along with a statement on the site’s “outstanding universal value”. A report must be submitted by February 2013 on “the possible inscription of the property on the list of World Heritage in Danger”.

Although Pompeii is among Italy’s most important heritage sites, it is not the only one to face intractable problems. Italy’s 47 World Heritage Sites include Venice and its Lagoon and the historic centre of Rome, to take two examples. However, Bandarin, an Italian citizen, stresses that Unesco’s agreement with Italy is “only for the World Heritage Site of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata”.

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Comments

11 Nov 13
15:45 CET

MARY ZABELL, BULLI

Went to Pompeii Oct 2013. Was there 7 years ago and noticed how many villas and streets were non-accessible. Good idea to restrict access and hope it's not a case of 'too little, too late'. However, people were allowed to bring dogs into the site...unbelievable!!!

16 Jan 12
16:45 CET

JOHN, GEELONG

I wish I was surprised. The neglect of their historical and cultural traditions is apparent throughout Italy. When I first saw Rome in the 70s, there were cars parked alongside the Closseum's walls, and the Forum was a weed-strewn shambles. The neglect of Venice gets worse, and I don't want to see it again while those ugly adverts and cheap kiosk near the cathedral are in place. The ancient romans used to be fine administrators, now all is mired in incompetence and corruption. Most Italians would like to see the back of all foreign tourists, but how would their economy survive without them?

10 Jan 12
19:21 CET

SIENNA REID, WASHINGTON/ROME

Having lived in Italy for 12 years, running my own private tours company, Italy Hotline Custom and Gourmet Tours, and visited Pompeii countless times, I can attest to its mismanagement. I am a painter and particularly interested in the 2000 year old paintings. Each year they are further degraded from humidity, water infiltration and bad maintenance of the site. They are priceless, irreplaceable and very rare paintings and their value is enormous, but no one seems to take them seriously. Adding plexi glass covers to them seems to just further damage them and it traps dirt inside making them impossible to see. The site is run by a mafia as far as I can tell and it is incomprehensible how they could be allowing it to decay. Do you know how many universities could be setting up constant maintenance teams there as a way to train their archeological students? I see this site, and many others as a national emergency. Once it is degraded enough it is lost. Forever.

9 Jan 12
17:42 CET

CAROLINE, PHILADELPHIA/LONDON

Perhaps they should firstly restrict the number of tourists each day by issuing a limit to daily tickets sold. Every visitor has to be accompanied by a professional guide, and a ticket its bought in advance. Glass or clear protection on walls with heavy traffic. Visitors should not be allowed to roam freely, going into every house. They can look from a few feet away behind a tape. Invite different universities to adopt a section to work on preservation projects, as apposed to excavating and leaving to open to the elements...

9 Jan 12
17:13 CET

DANA BANKS, DALLAS, TEXAS

Put Pompeii on the "Endangered List" !! Given Italy's severe financial debt condition, maybe then some other responsible concerned group(s) will come to the aid.

7 Jan 12
19:59 CET

ANDREW, ADELAIDE

The problem with sites like Pompeii have are that archaeology is required to understand them, yet is destructive. Heritage management is required to protect them yet is expensive. Tourism can offset some of the costs, yet is a source of great destruction. Damned if you do, damned if you dont.

6 Jan 12
20:8 CET

JOHN BOSSI, AUSTIN, TX

An image that has stood out in my mind was a recent blog post by a professional photographer who visited the site. She said she was roaming the area looking for fountains and toilets to shoot. When she entered one ancient building, two teen boys came running out laughing while zipping up their pants. She said the smell of urine was overwhelming and she had to leave. Is this what has become of this beautiful archeological treasure?

6 Jan 12
14:13 CET

FRED, NEW YORK CITY

My husband and I visited a few years ago and I remember how surprised I was by a lack of guards throughout the site and how few buildings were available to visit. I recall that children were roaming freely and there seemed to be no impediments to that. The site was glorious but the sense of disinterest in it and disdain for us as tourists was disheartening and surprising. Italy, generally, seems very uninterested in tourists or so our treatment indicated.

6 Jan 12
1:35 CET

JOHN ROBERT, BROOKLYN, NEW YORK

We were amazed at how poor the care was during our last visit to Pompeii. There were no guards in sight at all, no one watching the tourists. Children were climbing on fountains, jumping into mosaic pools, rubbing the walls with toys. How could anyone sit back like this and just allow this treasure to be destroyed like this?

6 Jan 12
14:15 CET

ELIZABETH, FLORENCE, ITALY

Sadly, Italy simply cannot take proper care of its overwhelming cultural heritage, Pompeii is just one blatant example. Indeed if Unesco could raise more international awareness about this recent assessment, Italy's government might pay closer attention to one of the world's most fascinating archeological sites open to the public, a precious testament of ancient Rome and a huge tourist attraction with enormous economic potential. Many valid proposals for better preservation have been made by serious students and young professionals only to fall on deaf ears. Having lived in this beautiful country for over twenty years I am by now accustomed only to see that positive change happens rarely, if at all. Pompeii, like so many other places in Italy will only continue to decay and be taken away piece by piece as souvenirs, slowly but surely, meanwhile the guards will still be talking among themselves "in groups of three or four" instead of doing their job, and can't be fired either!

5 Jan 12
21:58 CET

MICHAEL, PHOENIX

HOW CAN I GO TO WORK IN POMPEII? ID GO IN A HEARTBEAT. IT HAS BEEN MY NUMBER 1 FANTASY MY ENTIRE LIFE

5 Jan 12
21:58 CET

RICHARD FRAME, NEWPORT

we visited last year and as a ex student of archaeology was extremely concerned to see the lack of care being taken for this WHS.I saw buildings falling apart and people picking up pieces to take home. We were staying in Naples which was a total shambles with rubbish piled up, I'm afraid the same sort of people are in charge of this site, it needs protecting from them, so the rest of the world can marvel at it. I didn't find much difference between the attitude of the Italians and Egyptians, ie they want to make money from the tourists, but don't properly care for these imprtant world sites.Perhaps it needs taking into the hands of UNESCO.

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