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Ashes to ashes: the latter-day ruin of Pompeii

29th April 2010 — Issue 170 Free entry
Pompeii, the best-preserved Roman town in the world, still attracts millions of visitors. But its appalling state is a disgrace to Italy, Unesco and European civilisation
At the ticket office at the entrance to Pompeii, the world’s greatest archaeological site, three women, two English and one Australian, are trying to make themselves understood. They have not come to look at the ruins. A few years ago, in a bid to tackle the “crisis” of Pompeii, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared the place a disaster zone and handed over control to a commissario straordinario as if, the archaeologists grumbled, Vesuvius had erupted last week and there was a humanitarian disaster under way. His choice for the job was Renato Profili, who (in the words of one insider) “did not recognise the real problems of the site.” Instead, he concentrated on issues such as the prostitutes and the illegal restaurants on the site’s periphery, and the packs of stray dogs. Profili died last year, but his legacy lives on in the Cave Canem project, which encourages visitors to adopt a dog.
The women at the ticket office have come to do just that. But they speak no Italian and the woman in the ticket office knows little English. There are forms to fill out in triplicate to adopt a dog, and taking the animals out of the country is another matter—no one has a clue what the procedure is.
The fate of Pompeii and its sister site Herculaneum puts Europe’s recent volcanic difficulty into proper perspective. The eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 had been preceded by weeks of earth tremors but the town, with a population of perhaps 20,000, was totally unprepared for the devastation. Pliny the Elder wrote that the eruption was “thrusting… bulging and uncoiling… as if the hot entrails of the earth were being drawn out and dragged towards the heavens.”

Many countries eagerly seek world heritage status for their sites, seeing it as a way of creating interest in their cultural treasures and increasing tourism. But Italy is so well-endowed culturally—it has 44 sites, more than any other country—that a Unesco listing matters far less, which helps explain why Pompeii and Herculaneum applied so late. For the grandees of Italy’s culture ministry, which has more heritage than it knows what to do with, the listing was an afterthought.
If Unesco can’t help, a private donor is a potential answer. David Packard has spent €15m restoring Herculaneum; Pompeii is more than twice as big so perhaps €40m would bring it to the same point of repair. With good housekeeping, ongoing maintenance could be funded with the gate receipts.

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