by Roderick Conway Morris

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Saving Pompeii from Decay


By Roderick Conway Morris
POMPEII 18 April 1998

 

Buried in a matter of hours under several meters of ash and pumice stone during a cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Pompeii is the most perfectly preserved city to come down to us from the ancient world. Last year almost 2 million people visited the site, well over half a million more than the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, making the antique ghost town the most popular single attraction in Italy.

Ironically, as the number of visitors has inexorably risen, the area open to them has progressively shrunk. Of the 44 hectares (108 acres) of Pompeii so far uncovered -- about two thirds of the total extent of the city -- less than a quarter is now accessible to the public, and of 64 monuments, villas and houses open in 1956, only 16 can now also be seen from the inside.

Three years ago, Professor Pietro Giovanni Guzzo was appointed superintendent of Pompeii and its surrounding archaeological sites, including the smaller, but scarcely less important, Herculaneum. But in the face of meager resources and Rome's notoriously slow bureaucracy, his efforts to reverse the decay have been severely hampered.

However, a law enacted this winter, which marks a significant break with Italy's intensely centralized administrative traditions, has given Pompeii a significant measure of financial and organizational autonomy in an experiment that, if successful, could prove a model for other cultural sites and museums in Italy.

"The absolute priority is to arrest the deterioration of Pompeii," said Guzzo in his office on the site. "Excavations were begun here in 1748, so some parts of the city have been exposed for 250 years. The 1980 earthquake caused considerable damage and, of course, the ever larger number of visitors has also taken its toll.

"So the first objective is consolidation. And, as we have emphasized in the overall plan for the future, financed by the World Monuments Fund, whose World Monuments Watch in 1996 added Pompeii to its list of major endangered monuments, this consolidation must be applied to the whole site, because the exceptional thing about Pompeii, apart from its unique state of preservation, is that it is the only ancient city that has survived in its entirety. But at the same time, we need urgently to improve what is offered to visitors, to the general public."

Guzzo has rejected recent suggestions that the number of visitors to the site be restricted. "With an area of about half a million square meters, as more of the city is reopened, there should be plenty of room for everybody, though the point is that the flow of visitors must be properly regulated," he said.

He added that to do this special itineraries following through different aspects of Pompeii would be introduced. Where space is limited, the number of visitors to the interiors of buildings would be regulated. For example, he said, "If you wanted to visit the House of the Vettii, you could make an appointment for, say 11:30, and others who turned up without bookings would only be able to go inside if tickets were left over."

Starting this spring, Pompeii and its surrounding sites will be run by a three-man team -- headed by Guzzo and assisted by Professor Giuseppe Gherpelli, a cultural economist, as administrative director, and a senior manager from within the Pompeii Superintendency's existing staff. Whereas in the past, money from ticket sales went into the state's coffers, now everything taken from entry charges, book sales and so on will be paid into a current account that the new team will be able to use as it sees fit, said Guzzo.

Pompeii will have at its disposal a budget of about 20 billion lire ($11.1 million), three quarters of which is expected to come from ticket sales and the rest from contributions from the Cultural Heritage Ministry.

But with an estimate to carry out all necessary work in the coming years standing at 500 billion lire, Guzzo said he and his colleagues will have to be very active in their search for additional sources of income. They were, he said, already talking to Confindustria, the national association of larger-scale companies. "We are investigating the possibility that private industry could undertake consolidation and restoration work in exchange for being allowed to use the image of Pompeii to market their products and services, and for publicity purposes," he said.

Work has already begun on converting farm buildings on an unexcavated rise in the middle of the site into a café and bookshop.

POMPEII'S scientific laboratory has for some years studied the remains of the fauna, flora and a host of human goods found in the city, and has been cultivating plants to restock the site with historically appropriate species. This research has extended into experiments in reproducing Roman wines, perfumes, glass and even textiles, and there are now plans to produce some of these products to raise money.

Vines have been planted in one of the 2,000-year-old walled vineyards within Pompeii. The first harvest will take place this autumn, and the grapes processed and fermented according to ancient Roman techniques. If the outcome is satisfactory, the laboratory will go into partnership with a commercial grower to bottle and sell the wine.

The streamlined style of the autonomous administration will mean, said Guzzo, that while in the past a superintendent might have had to wait months or even years for approval of new initiatives, a project like the one to produce Pompeii wines could be launched at once if judged to be viable.

Guzzo clearly sees the only long-term hope of raising substantial extra income in bringing more visitors to the site and encouraging them to spend more when they are here.

"If the public over the next five years finds a Pompeii that is better conserved, more accessible, more attractive, that will be proof that the new system is working," he said.


First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2016