Thursday, 13 March 2014

Pompeii's decline continues

In September 2012 I reported that the roof of the Villa of Mysteries in Pompeii had collapsed.  This was not the first time that Pompeii's ruins had suffered from what is commonly seen as poor management of the UNESCO listed site.




Villa of Mysteries
Buried as a result of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79AD, Pompeii was not completely destroyed. Clouds of ash and pumice hit both Pompeii and Herculaneum followed by pyroclastic flows and surges; it was the latter that sealed the cities and the fate of its citizens. A pyroclastic flow is an avalanche of volcanic matter – pumice, ash, rock and gas – that at speeds of up to 100 km per hour hurtles down the side of the volcano. Asphyxiation would have been the cause of death for many fleeing the area, living in the countryside, in boats on the sea, or taking refuge by the shoreline; which according to Pliny the Younger’s description was the likely cause of the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. Others would have been buried below collapsing buildings or drowned as boats capsized in the turbulent sea. The devastation was so complete, and must have had such an impact on the survivors, that neither Pompeii or Herculaneum were reoccupied as had been the normal practice after earthquakes in the region.

For nearly 1500 years the cities remained hidden, until a partial discovery of Pompeii was made when digging an underground channel in order to divert the river Sarno. Walls covered with paintings and inscriptions were uncovered though whether the architect, Domenico Fontana, who found them was aware of their significance is not known; he covered them back up again. In 1738 Herculaneum was rediscovered when the foundations for a summer palace for Charles of Bourbon, the King of Naples were being dug. Ten years later and deliberate excavations at the site of Pompeii were underway led by Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, a Spanish military engineer.

 Excavations have continued from the mid-1700s until the present day with varying degrees of care and successful preservation and renovation. The Second World War took its toll on the site with a number of buildings damaged by bombing campaigns, not to mention the impact of continuing natural phenomena such as earthquakes from which Italy is far from immune. 
“I hope there is no more excavation,” said Salvatore, our guide, as we stood before the cordoned off House of Julia Felix in Regio II, in 2007. “It is more damaging than conserving.”
“Why is it cordoned off?”
“Structural issues.” Our friendly guide now wore a mask of cold sobriety.  “I want them to cover up Regio III, IV and V and limit the number of tourists allowed in, to prevent further damage.” This was from a man whose livelihood depends on the tourist trade but whose fondness for the ancient city of Pompeii overrode it all.


I have to agree with Salvatore. It is wonderful to walk in the footsteps of those lived in this city before nature hid it from view for more than a millennia, but the price is high. Despite the millions of people and euros that have passed through the gates of the seemingly well-preserved Pompeii the money collected has been insufficient.  In 2010 the House of the Gladiators collapsed, and in 2012 the roof fell in on the Villa of Mysteries, bringing our guide’s worst fears to fruition. Controversy was fierce following the 2010 collapse with accusations of neglect levied at the site’s management despite it having been placed on the list of monuments to be closely monitored by the World Monuments Fund and funding having been received to carry out essential conservation works on this site. Now we can add damage to the Temple of Venus and the collapse of a recently restored building's wall to the list. 

Exposure to the elements, pollution, erosion, poor methods of excavation and reconstruction and the literal touch of tourism have increased the chance of further collapses and the risk will not go away. This latest damage has been vaguely attributed to heavy rain, and yet another investigation is being opened into the whys and wherefores of Pompeii's decay.

Antonio Irlando from the Cultural Heritage Observatory, a group that follows work on Pompeii and other sites, said, "The news of these collapses comes at a time in which there is an unprecendented vacuum in the management of Pompeii." However, as I above the World Monuments Fund and UNESCO have both criticised the management of Pompeii in previous years - this is not a new vacuum in management, but a continuation of poor management. Iralndo goes on to say that, "For every collapse that is reported, there are another nine that do not make the news." His labelling of the state of the site as "dramatic" sounds very much like an understatement.



Last year the European Union funded the conservation project to the tune of €41.8 million, nearly half of the total 105million project. However, the conservation project has been delayed by the bureaucracy that haunts both Italy and such projects. Culture Minister Dario Franceschini has promised to release €2million to get the project moving and "unblock" some measures, In the meantime, Italy's Prime Minister, Renzi has asked the private sector to assist with financial help: "Italy is a country of culture and so I challenge businessmen. What are you waiting for?" He went on to say, "The ideological refusal to permit the private sector to intervene, as if only the public sector could guarantee the guardianship of heritage must end." And in this matter he is right, and so it has proved in Rome where the shoemaker Tod's is refurbishing the Colosseum and Fendi is expected to restore the Trevi fountain. 

Tourism is a double-edged sword; it provides a large source of income for conservation and supports the modern town of Pompei whilst contributing to the ancient town’s downfall. Pompeii became a stop-over on the ‘Grand Tour’ undertaken by the European aristocrats during the 18th and 19th centuries, part of Thomas Cook’s original ‘Cook’s Tour’ paving the way for the tourist onslaught of later years.  In 2008 nearly 2.6 million visitors passed through the city’s gates. Whilst less than a third of the site is open to visitors now than was in the case in the 1960s, the site is still of a considerable size and to take it all in, a couple of days are needed. Erotic art, casts of victims of the eruption, mosaics and the layout of the town and its civic buildings are all evidence from which historians can work to gain an insight into how life was like for the people of Pompeii before and during the town’s final moments, which in turn helps us to understand other aspects of life at other Roman sites in Europe and Africa. The question is what price for this new knowledge?

To preserve Pompeii’s perilous beauty the books need to be balanced between increasing our knowledge of ancient history and culture, tourism and preservation and conservation.  The governing body of Pompeii, Soprintendenza Archaeological di Pompei, has been trying to encourage tourists to visit the neighbouring cities of Herculaneum and Stabiae in order to reduce the pressure on Pompeii, but to my mind that is merely shifting the problem elsewhere rather than dealing with the issue of conservation and preservation. The books will not pass this auditor’s scrutiny.

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