Pompeii: Keeping alive a dead city

2015-12-21 18:37


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Rome - Italy has the world's largest number of Unesco World Heritage Sites and its culture minister likes to say that its monuments are as precious a resource as oil is for Persian Gulf nations.

But for years, Pompeii, an ancient Roman city buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD and rediscovered in the 18th century, symbolised the country's inability to look after its treasures. Things are improving, but it is unclear how long this will last.

"This could have been another Caporetto," Pompei Superintendent Massimo Osanna told dpa, referring to the WWI battle Italy ignominiously lost against Austria, which has become a byword for national disaster.

Pompeii plunged to its nadir in 2010, when its famous House of Gladiators collapsed after heavy rains. Responding to international outrage, Rome authorities secured €105m ($115m) from the European Union to shore up the entire site.

Yet when Osanna was appointed in March 2014, the Great Pompeii Project - as the EU-funded scheme was called - had barely got off the ground, despite a December 2015 deadline to use up all the grant or face an obligation to return unspent funds to Brussels.

"I thought I was going to a place where I would be chasing windmills like Don Quixote, and colleagues were telling me, 'what made you do it?,'" the 52-year-old archaeologist recalled. "I don't regret the choice I made, but it was harder than I had imagined."

General Giovanni Nistri, a former head of the national heritage squad of the Carabinieri police military corps who was installed as financial manager of the rescue project in late 2013, is credited for rescuing it.

Corrective actions 

Nistri told dpa that 25% of planned conservation projects existed only on paper when he took office. He could not give reasons why - that's just how it was, he said curtly - but explained what corrective actions he took.

He said he cut short tender procurement procedures from one year to less than a month and connected all available EU money to specific projects, but acknowledged that only about €40m will have been spent by December 31.

The EU had expected Italy to use up all the cash by that date, but since the target will be missed, the expectation is that a fudge will be found to extend the EU scheme by a couple of years. "It is most likely that the issue will be resolved positively," Nistri said.

Unesco, which had threatened to declare Pompeii a site at risk of destruction, has recognised the turnaround. In March, an inspectors' report said "excellent progress" had been made under Osanna and Nistri.

Key achievements include a new drainage system in the unexcavated part of the ruins, which should reduce the risk of 2010-style collapses, and a city-wide computer mapping system which should make it easier to detect critical situations.

"Pompeii is a city, but a city of ruins. And ruins are doomed to crumble. Our job is to keep alive a dead city," Osanna said. "This means I can't promise that nothing will ever collapse again, especially now that works are ongoing, but not yet completed."

Visiting in early December, in the low tourist season, dpa saw a tidy, uncrowded site, with workers buzzing ahead of the reopening of six restored houses. Initially foreseen on Wednesday, the ceremony was pushed back one day so that Prime Minister Matteo Renzi could attend.

It gets messier in the summer, when most of the 3 million yearly inflow of visitors is concentrated.

Francesco Erbani, a journalist who published a book on the teetering fortunes of Pompeii during the last two decades, said Pompeii was wrecked in the past by bureaucratic mismanagement that may return once its emergency fix is complete.

Speaking to dpa, he listed the confusing overlap of management structures, the lingering risk of infiltration by the local Camorra Mafia and strained relations with local municipal and Catholic Church institutions as key challenges.

Even Unesco inspectors are concerned about the future: they urged the Italian government to make sure Pompeii is adequately staffed and financed "for the foreseeable future", otherwise "the structural failures leading to collapses will recur".

Nistri said the objective was to "turn the extraordinary into the ordinary", meaning that the Pompeii rescue project should be followed up by regular, well-planned maintenance work, the kind that was neglected prior to his arrival.

"At least 50% of the Great Pompeii Project has gone right. My wish is that this 50% may be remembered and retained. I am neither hopeful or sceptical: I will observe what happens and draw my conclusions," he said.

Read more on:    unesco  |  italy  |  archaeology

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