Conservation Italy

The 21st-century fall of Pompeii

It is time the politicians learned to respect the experts in which Italy abounds—giving them the authority and resources they need

More buildings will collapse without a change in the status quo in Pompeii's management

A building in Pompeii, little known and little visited, its function little understood, but known to some as the School of Gladiators, collapses to the ground one rainy night in early November. The shock waves move through the Italian to the international press, and the affair spirals up to the Italian parliament: a vote of confidence is demanded on the culture minister, Sandro Bondi. Many hasten to point the finger of blame. Is it Bondi’s fault, or is it that of the local superintendent (and if so which one, for three have followed in quick succession over the last year)? Or is it the fault of the special commissioners (and if so which) whom the Government appointed under emergency legislation some three years ago? Or is it rather the product of a general malaise, a systematic underinvestment in the site, a failure to prioritise the preservation of antiquities so exceptional that to lose them is an international scandal?

The exercise of finger pointing is singularly unhelpful, and let us at once exonerate ministers, superintendents, commissioners and all others involved. The problems go far deeper. Systematic excavation has been going on at Pompeii and its lesser known, but no less precious neighbour, Herculaneum, for over 260 years. From the first, the problem of preserving these remains has troubled the admiring visitors. The engineers working for the Bourbon kings in the 18th century preserved frescoes by hacking them from their walls and carrying them off to the royal palace-cum-museum at Portici. And yet those frescoes, many today stacked in a dusty attic in the Naples National Archaeological Museum, are frequently in a better state of preservation than those excavated two centuries later, and preserved by “reconstructing” the original houses around them.

The underlying problem of Pompeii is that there is too much of it, and it is far too precious to lose. Hundreds of houses have been excavated, with thousands of rooms decorated with frescoed walls and mosaic floors. To preserve one or two examples in perfect or near perfect condition may be feasible, but to preserve all of them even adequately requires a massive investment of resource, an appropriate management structure, and a well-supported skills base. It is a lot to ask: but this is what the site absolutely demands and requires, and somehow, between them, the Italian government and the international community must ensure that it happens.

Collapses happen all over the site, but they do not catch the attention of the press because they are not in locations on the major thoroughfare down which most tourists walk. And collapses are only the most dramatic form of damage. There are countless instances where the penetration of water, from leaking roofs, blocked downpipes, and rising damp from floors with blocked drains, is constantly eroding this irreplaceable heritage. A decade’s work addressing precisely similar problems at Herculaneum, where the vigorous involvement of an outside sponsor, the Packard Humanities Institute, has made it possible to study the problem in detail, has shown that the greatest single need is a programme of continuous maintenance. Today’s cracked roof tile or blocked outlet leads to tomorrow’s damaged fresco, and eventually to a collapsed structure. Constant vigilance and monitoring is required across the entire site.

Considerable money has been spent on “restoration” projects in Pompeii in recent decades. Yet the temptation has been to undertake ambitious projects, often made possible by one-off external funding, from the Region of Campania or Europe, too narrowly focused on particular areas, while the basics are neglected elsewhere. Half a century ago there was a workforce of as many as 100, constantly on site and mending and repairing. Today that workforce has almost entirely gone, and years can elapsed between the reporting of serious problems and the putting out to tender of a conservation project. Until Pompeii has the structures that enable a constant monitoring of problems, and timely response informed by the good understanding derived from accumulated experience, then houses will continue to collapse.

The solution requires an act of political will. Italian heritage is dramatically underfunded: the European nation with arguably the most extensive heritage devotes one of the smallest budgets to its preservation. The little the heritage authorities used to have has been dramatically cut in the present crisis. Yet Italy cannot afford to under-invest in its heritage, because it is an asset of overwhelming importance. Nor will it do to treat Pompeii as a problem of marketing and management. What business in Italy has the management experience of trying to sustain such an asset for nearly three centuries? An archaeologist like Amedeo Maiuri, who in the mid 20th century gave us so much of both Pompeii and Herculaneum, may have had no business background; yet without his enthusiasm and skill in presenting and preserving these sites, the tourism industry of the Bay of Naples would be a shadow of its present self. It is time that the politicians learnt to respect the experts in which Italy abounds, archaeologists and conservators and architects and engineers, and give them the authority, the flexibility and the resources to save the sites which the President of Italy, Giorgio Napolitano, has rightly described as a “vergogna”, a national disgrace. The international community looks on aghast: yet it is also capable of helping and willing to do so. If ever there was a moment for joint action, it is now.

The writer is the master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, and leads the Herculaneum Conservation Project

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15 Dec 10
17:26 CET


Nationalism, unfortunately, is at the root of this problem. The Italian government must acknowledge that what is needed is the kind of international commitment that saved Abu Simbel in the 1960s. Also, such a movement needs a public face. Abu Simbel had Jacqueline Kennedy. Who will take on that role today?

15 Dec 10
9:42 CET


I applaud your insightful words, especially given the disastrous reality that faces not only Italy but all cultural heritage around the globe today. With their talent and skills and their constant efforts in Italy and abroad (often unsung) Italians possess what it takes to reverse the current trend in their long-term care of their cultural heritage. And they are not alone- as Italy hosts numerous foreign academies and ICCROM as well. It is the ideal place, really, to create a sustainable platform that will reach their UNESCO sites as well as the far larger amount of "unlisted" sites that make Italy so unique. Other important constituencies to consider- the tourist (arriving in ever greater numbers) and the Italian public-- all eager to learn through didactic guidelines on site or through their smart phones. Now's the time to use the new technologies and social media for something substantive. Good news- studies show heavy investment in heritage has high returns. Listening Italy?

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