Saving Pompeii: Is there Any Hope of Preserving the UNESCO World Heritage Site?

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The first wall to collapse was in a supporting arch of the Temple of Venus. Screenshot by Natasha Sheldon.

The collapse of two walls in the ancient city of Pompeii during the early days of March 2014 has escalated concerns for the long-term future of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The Italian Government quickly reacted, calling an emergency meeting of politicians and experts, all pledging immediate action to preserve the site.

But the situation is not a new one, with similar collapses in 2010 precipitating the same, familiar promises for the site’s future. So what hope is there of saving Pompeii from the elements- and the politicians?

March 2014 Wall Collapses

On Saturday, the 1st March 2014, part of a supporting arch of Pompeii’s Temple of Venus gave way after days of heavy rain. Soon after, in the early hours of the 2nd, Pompeii experienced the loss of a 1.7m high, 3.5-metre long wall in the necropolis of Porta Nucera. Finally, on Monday the 3rd March, part of the wall of a Roman shop collapsed.

The Italian Government Acts?

These serious, sequential losses prompted outrage from the United Nations and the European Union, who demanded immediate urgent measures to stabilize the site. In response, the Italian government convened an emergency meeting of politicians and archaeologists as they formulated a plan of action to save the ancient city from further damage. At an emergency meeting on Tuesday 4th March, Italian culture minister Dario Franceschini said he was ‘unblocking many measures which will get the machine working.’

Those measures included immediate action to protect vulnerable areas of Pompeii and a 2.5 million dollar boost to its maintenance budget. But is this enough?

The Latest in a Long line of Disasters

The March 2014 collapses are not the first on the site. In November and December 2010, heavy rains led to the collapse of walls and buildings in Pompeii in a very similar series of disasters. As in 2014, the downpours soaked the ruins of the exposed two-thirds of the 66-hectare ancient city, weakening them to the extent that some collapsed under their own weight.

Most tragic was the total loss of the Armaturarum or House of the Gladiators, so-called because archaeologists believed it was a storehouse for gladiatorial equipment.

“The Great Pompeii Project”

Condemnation of the neglect that precipitated these collapses was widespread, particularly since UNESCO began warning about ‘serious structural problems’ in Pompeii since 1996. In response, the Italian government reputedly spent 79 million euros on emergency restoration between 2008-2010.

In response to the 2010 embarrassment, they promised to do better and set up ‘The Greta Pompeii Project,’ with 105 million Euros in pledges to shore up Pompeii for the future.

The organizers intended for the project-which was amply supported by the European Union- to fund restoration, maintenance, a new drainage system and better closed circuit television surveillance. So what has gone wrong?

A Bureaucratic Nightmare


If the Italian government does not act quickly and put Pompeii before politics, more of the site will follow the collapsed wall at the necropolis of Porta Nucera. Screenshot by Natasha Sheldon, film by Pierce Foote.

It seems that so far, efforts to save Pompeii suffer from mismanagement, bureaucratic red tape and political wrangling. According to Maria Pia Guermandi, a Pompeii expert with the Italian heritage group Italia Nostra, what the city needs is basic maintenance, not fancy restorations of high-profile remains.

The EU money is being focused on the restoration of a few important houses,’ she told The Telegraph, ‘but Pompeii doesn’t need expert restorers, it needs workmen who can provide daily maintenance. These two new collapses show the situation is out of control.’

But before this essential work can commence, the Italian government has to start making Pompeii a priority- and this seems to be the major problem. For funding and expertise simply isn’t being released to the site- because politicians are sitting on it.

In January 2014, outgoing cultural minister, Massimo Bray,  chose Massimo Osanna, a professor of archaeology at the University of Basilicata, to manage the Pompeii project- specifically for his political neutrality.

But a change of minister has stalled the appointment, and with it the appointment of 20 cultural heritage experts and five specialists in law, economics and architecture; all of whom were supposed to be supplied by the ministry to the project.  The Corte dei Conti, which audits public expenditure, called for a financial review, because in their view, Osanna’s appointment constitutes an unnecessary additional expense to the Ministry of Culture!

What Hope for Pompeii?

Meanwhile, one of Italy’s and the world’s greatest archaeological treasures slowly crumbles away, under threat of being placed on UNESCOS’s ‘World heritage in danger’ list.

The answer seems clear and practical: until Italy puts Pompeii first and politics second, the future of the site looks grim. Politicians appear in danger of finishing the job that Vesuvius started.


© Copyright 2014 Natasha Sheldon, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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