POMPEII, Italy — Destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pompeii survived excavation starting in the 18th century and has stoically borne the wear and tear of millions of modern-day tourists.
Now, its deep-hued frescoes, brick walls and elegant tile mosaics appear to be at risk from an even greater threat: the bureaucracy of the Italian state.
In recent years, collapses at the site have alarmed conservationists, who warn that this ancient Roman city is dangerously exposed to the elements — and is poorly served by the red tape, the lack of strategic planning and the limited personnel of the site’s troubled management.
The site’s decline has captured the attention of the European Union, which began a $137 million effort in February that aims to balance preservation with accessibility to tourists. Called the Great Pompeii Project, the effort also seeks to foster a culture-driven economy in an area dominated by the Neapolitan Mafia.
In a telling juxtaposition, however, a day before the project was initiated in February, the police arrested the head of a construction company hired to modify an ancient theater at Pompeii on charges of inflating costs and violating the terms of an earlier preservation project.
And last week a team of law-enforcement officers and labor inspectors conducted a surprise inspection to make sure that the local Mafia had not strong-armed its way into the restoration work.
Pompeii’s problems stem from its status as “one of the biggest and most important sites in the world,” and its location “in one of the areas with the highest concentration of organized crime in all of Europe,” said Fabrizio Barca, the minister for territorial cohesion in the caretaker government of Prime Minister Mario Monti.
Nevertheless, Barca expressed confidence that the program would be successful and that it would prove that the Italian government could get things done.
“The project is going to reshape the way things are dealt with,” he said. “If we don’t preserve Pompeii, then the state has failed.”
Since the 1990s, a series of special administrations have been put in charge of Pompeii. In 2008 the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi named a special commissioner for the site, giving him powers to subvert routine bureaucracy, but the post was dissolved in 2010. This year one commissioner was placed under judicial investigation on suspicion of using state money for projects that went beyond maintenance, like renovating an ancient theater for performances.
Watchdogs also question why several new buildings were built at Pompeii at great expense and with unclear scope, and whether a 2010 project, now defunct, to allow visitors to adopt some of the many stray dogs at the site was the best way to use part of the emergency prevention financing.
The investigations have also blocked some tourist-friendly initiatives, including plans to convert a villa on the grounds into a restaurant and another building into a museum.
‘Underfunded for 50 years’
Pompeii has “always been an emergency” since it was first excavated in 1748, said Grete Stefani, the current archaeological director of the site. The most recent crisis phase began in November 2010, when the Schola Armaturarum, which housed an ancient military order, crumbled into the street after a period of torrential rain.
At a time when the decadent Berlusconi government was in tumult, the collapse hit a nerve, capturing the general air of decline in Italy after decades of deferred political and economic maintenance. Magistrates are investigating the collapse.
In Pompeii, about 10 houses, out of dozens on the site, are always open to the public, with a handful of others on a rotating basis. Conservators are repeatedly forced to shore up crumbling walls and water-damaged frescoes rather than plan the systematic maintenance of the 163-acre site to prevent sudden collapses.
“Pompeii is an appropriate metaphor for this country,” said Sergio Rizzo, a journalist at Corriere della Sera and an author of a book on the mismanagement of Italy’s cultural heritage. “It’s a beautiful place, a marvelous place that every country would like to have,” he added, “but it also reveals the workings of Italian chaos.”
Pompeii’s long-standing problems have stymied a succession of Culture Ministry archaeologists entrusted with its conservation. Stefano De Caro, who oversaw the archaeological work at Pompeii from 1977 to 1984, says the site’s woes stem from Italy’s shortsighted budget policies, which have kept it in a near-constant state of crisis.
“The fact is that Pompeii has been underfunded for 50 years, and gorging on funds every once in a while doesn’t help if you need to eat every day,” said De Caro, who is now director general of the International Center for the Study of the Preservation and Restoration of Cultural Property, or Iccrom, based in Rome.
The new conservation strategy of Pompeii will be focused less on restoring individual monuments than on comprehensive maintenance, including improved water collection and disposal. Conservators say that many recent collapses were the result of bad drainage and the slow erosion of the ancient mortar.
Conservation has been hindered by a hiring freeze, particularly of skilled restorers, but also of lower-level maintenance workers. “It’s been a situation with lots of generals, but no troops,” said Valerio Papaccio, an architect currently overseeing preservation.
Under the new works project, the Culture Ministry has hired more archaeologists and architects with an eye toward the future.
“The EU funding is a good starting point to overcome this situation, but it’s not enough to save the site,” said Teresa Elena Cinquantaquattro, the site’s superintendent since 2010. “The new hires are vital, and by programing restorations year by year we can overcome the emergency.”
She says that critics have ignored the challenges in maintaining a vast, open-air site, and that many hard-working staff members toil in silence and anonymity to keep the site functioning. “I don’t deny that there are problems, but there’s also been a lot of hard work done here,” she said. “Pompeii is so vast that it requires enormous efforts.”
Officials say the Great Pompeii Project has a better chance of succeeding where other plans have failed because it is a comprehensive strategy involving three ministries: Culture, Interior and Territorial Cohesion. Economic development officials examine the investment potential of bids, while Interior Ministry officials make sure they are awarded to companies without ties to organized crime.
There are also timid advancements to introduce private sponsorship at the site, much in the same way that the Packard Humanities Institute has made the nearby Herculaneum, also buried by Vesuvius, a model site for archaeological preservation.
But some veteran observers doubt whether Italy will ever be able to finish the job. “The city has been excavated to an extent that it cannot be properly preserved, so we should just rebury parts of it,” said De Caro of Iccrom. “This way isn’t working, and to maintain things the way they are means certain death.”