The Last Days of Pompeii?

I was at Pompeii again with friends yesterday, for perhaps the 5th time over the last two years.  In the late autumn sunshine, the ruins were as wonderful and evocative as ever.  The administration of the site remains dysfunctional.

To be confronted, at 10 o’clock in the morning at the main entrance to a UNESCO world heritage site visited by 2.5 million people per year, with scribbled signs proclaiming ‘No maps’ was shocking, even by Italian standards.

This after running the perennial gauntlet of a thousand hawkers at the surrounding souvenir shops and pizza joints.  Perma-tanned, ageing male ‘guides’ (and they are almost all men, protected by red tape and state employment regulations) hung around the ticket line, offering the same, overpriced, unimaginative, disinterested tours.  There remained hardly any signs in either Italian or English anywhere.  The understaffed Autogrill restaurant, the only one on the site, continued chaotically to  sell overpriced snacks veeerrry slooowly.  Much of the site was closed or inaccessible.  Leaning walls were propped up, stray dogs roamed, there were few state custodians evident and many of the remaining frescos were faded and water damaged.

Archeologists, visitors and residents have complained for years about mismanagement, corruption and poor maintenance at the Pompeii site.  The Italian national government has typically responded with a set of superficial, ad hoc quick fixes, appointing new commissioners or declaring a state of emergency in a blaze of publicity before reverting to a state of indifference.  Even the regular building collapses, such as that of the 2000-year-old House of the Gladiators in 2008, and the vandalism, and the theft, aided by inadequate security and lack of video cameras, hasn’t been able to shake the Italian government from its torpor and neglect.  As noted by the Italian President, the state of Pompeii today is simply shameful and to many Italians a national embarrassment.

To save this priceless and unique site, one of humanity’s greatest archaeological treasures, the European Union has recently given Italy over 100 million Euros to spend by the end of 2015.  Some signs of this massive injection of money were evident yesterday with several sites closed for safety works, although no work was actually underway.  But the rate of the expenditure is very slow, bogged down unsurprisingly in murky contract awards and the inevitable bureaucracy and red tape.  During a visit to the site near Naples in July, European Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn said the project must be finished by the end of 2015 or 75 percent of the €105 million budget earmarked for the site “will be lost”.  Given the performance of the Italian government and administrators over the last 50 years, I am not hopeful.

The painting above The Last Day of Pompeii is by a Russian, Karl Briullov, who painted it between 1830-33.  He visited the site in 1828, making numerous sketches depicting the AD 79 Vesuvius eruption.  The work depicts the moment of Pompeii’s obliteration and the scene on the streets as the doomed are confronted by their fiery fate.  As this depressing article says, Pompeii again faces an uncertain future and remains at risk, especially at a time of ongoing Italian economic difficulties.  Perhaps the site should be reburied, to be uncovered in a future Italy more willing and able to look after it.

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2 thoughts on “The Last Days of Pompeii?

  1. On my first trip to Pompeii, as we visited the temple of Apollo the tour guide proceeded to give us a tedious lecture about the history and importance of Catholic communion! Bizarro! Later, when I was there on a dig, we were shut out several times due to strikes by the scavi workers. Looking at old photos of the site makes me want to weep when I see the losses due to neglect and corruption.

    • There is a lot of activity at Pompeii at present due to the EU money. But the question remains whether this is a permanent change in fortune or a temporary blip in the downward spiral.

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