As crowds of visitors have been reliving an artificial version of ancient Pompeii at the British Museum, the real Pompeii is suffering visibly from age, climate change, and institutional neglect. Aside from a well-worn path tailored to the compressed itineraries of cruise-ship operators and packaged bus tours, much of the site is inaccessible. Many of the city’s side streets are blocked, as are significant stretches of its main thoroughfare, the Via dell’Abbondanza. At best, a handful of houses are open to visitors.
Pompeii is not only the graveyard of an ancient Roman city; it is also, and especially, the graveyard of modern good intentions, of layer upon layer of projects that started out in a fanfare of high hopes and died with barely a whimper for lack of funding. The campaign known as Pompeii Viva—“Living Pompeii”—was launched in 2010 by the then-Commissioner for Pompeii, Marcello Fiori; it fizzled out in 2012 and Fiori is now under indictment for corruption. A fading sign on one of the scaffolded houses on Via dell’Abbondanza still declares:
Pompeii is a living city! A city that produces wine from its own fertile vines and food from its own gardens. Pompeii is the daughter and victim of a tragedy; that of its destruction by the eruption of Vesuvius, which took place in 79 A.D. And yet we, moved by the plaster casts of the victims, are happy to be able to observe, admire and come to know what remains of a Roman city.
In 2011, the building behind this sign was bustling with restorers at work. In 2013 it stands silent and inaccessible. Pompeii is a living city, but much of what lives there is vegetable, reptile, bird, or insect. For centuries now, budgets have petered out with a change of government or the end of some short-term project, and far too much of the money that should in theory go to protecting Pompeii—the site, even in its degraded condition, generates more tourist revenues than almost any other monument in Italy—has instead lined the pockets of people who seem intent on milking it dry.
One of the saddest projects was an attempt to help the stray dogs who populate the site. 132,000 euros were allocated to the Project (C)ave Canem to draw up a census of the dogs, sterilize them, guarantee them veterinary care, and encourage their adoption. 55 dogs were listed on the census, 26 were adopted, a handful of doghouses were scattered around the site, and most of the money was allegedly embezzled by the aforementioned official, Marcello Fiori. No one has the heart to take down the tattered sign that says “Adopt Melager” with the face of a winsome pup. Meanwhile, the population of stray dogs has soared; people abandon them here because they know that the animals will be cared for—but not as well as they should be.
To make matters a great deal worse, for the past two decades, the government of Italy, largely under the guidance of Silvio Berlusconi, has cut back spending on culture and education to the point where Pompeii has been falling down faster than anyone can repair it. The recent “restoration” of the theatre turned the ancient structure into a functional modern performance space by cementing over the original stones. Now, at last, the government of Enrico Letta has passed a law that guarantees funds for the latest restoration campaign, the “Great Pompeii Project” (“Grande Progetto Pompei”), but the damage to be repaired is formidable.
Some of this destruction is inevitable. Pompeii was so well preserved because it lay buried for seventeen centuries. Having its extraordinary ruins unearthed has meant exposing them to the normal processes of aging that all cities face—wind, rain, plants, animals, gravity, entropy, chaos—without the normal defenses that homeowners provide by caring for the places they inhabit. Furthermore, Pompeii was not by any means an intact city when Vesuvius destroyed it in the year 79. A devastating earthquake had already struck the region in 62, and many of its buildings were still under reconstruction when the volcano erupted in a rain of pumice pebbles. There were earthquakes after the eruption, too, as the emptied mountain settled back down for another few centuries of inactivity. Thus the soil of Pompeii has preserved not a city interrupted in the course of normal life, but one caught in a state of total panic, and whose buildings had already been severely damaged.
In the eighteenth century, when barefoot men dug away with shovels and barefoot women carried off the soil in baskets, only a limited area of Pompeii could be cleared at any one time, or even over the course of decades. But the advent of earth-moving machines in the twentieth century meant that the pace of digging accelerated as fast as curiosity could carry it. By now, it is obvious that archaeologists have exposed more than they can reasonably maintain, but curiosity about what lies beneath the soil and eagerness to test new methods of excavation are irresistible lures to unbury still more and leave the maintenance to someone else.
Nor has earth-moving equipment been the only plague visited on Pompeii by twentieth-century technology. During World War II, the Allies dropped 156 bombs in the area around the site, in the misguided belief that German troops were hiding out among the ruins. The little onsite museum set into the city gate at Porta Marina was blasted away by a direct hit and many other buildings were partially pulverized.
But human ingenuity has yet to match the force of Nature. The earthquake that struck the inland mountains of Irpinia in 1980 shook the Bay of Naples as well, causing a wall of Pompeii’s famous House of the Vettii to buckle. In recent years, climate change has brought unprecedented amounts of rain, eroding structures already weakened by the temblor of 1980. Two ancient buildings have collapsed altogether (one, ironically, was largely a modern reconstruction). The buildings that remain open take the full brunt of 2.5 million pairs of feet tramping through them every year, not to mention the skin and clothing rubbing up against ancient walls, wiping away traces of paint and stucco, and the deliberate damage: graffiti, vandalism.
What can be done to stop this decay? On a geological time scale, not much. On a human scale, a great deal. In Massimo Bray, Italy finally has a Minister of Culture and Tourism who means business (one of his predecessors, Sandro Bondi, was mostly known for his soupy poems in praise of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi). There is reason to hope that the waste and neglect that have brought the buried city to its present calamity will stop, at least to some extent, with a more responsible Italian government in charge and a new preservation law on the books.
In a real sense, however, Pompeii belongs to the world, and has belonged to the world ever since excavations opened in 1748 and Grand Tourists began flocking to the site in search of sun, antiquity, beauty, and themselves. An endless parade of luminaries has wandered down its basalt-paved streets: Mozart, Madame de Staël, Mark Twain, Dickens, Picasso, Renoir, Crown Prince Hirohito, Le Corbusier, Sigmund Freud. Who knows what course modern culture would have taken if these people had never paused beneath the slopes of Vesuvius to ponder human evanescence?
Even today, for all Pompeii’s official neglect, there is never a lack of sights to see and the setting can still be incomparably beautiful: shaded by umbrella pines, scented by flowers, cooled by a sea breeze, with a background twitter of birds and buzz of bumblebees. Ancient gardens and vineyards have been replanted with the same varieties of grape—piedirosso and scascinosa—that grew in this fertile volcanic soil two thousand years ago. The juice stands at the site’s various exits, festooned with oranges and plump, sweet Amalfi lemons, dispense the best possible remedy for thirst and fatigue. The stray dogs that trot alongside the tour groups or lie stretched out in the sun are friendly souls, even if signs warn against petting them.
The best favor that we ordinary mortals can do for Pompeii is to visit and linger overnight, following in the tracks of earlier admirers like Théophile Gautier and Wilhelm Jensen, authors of two charming novellas about Pompeii, Arria Marcella (1852) and Gradiva (1903), which mingle ancient and modern with gentle irony. The new Pompeii that surrounds the site is not simply a tourist town: it has a remarkable story of its own. Its founder, Bartolo Longo, was a nineteenth-century lawyer and philanthropist who created a religious sanctuary outfitted with the infrastructure of an ideal modern city, complete with workers’ houses, a telegraph office, an observatory for Vesuvius, a spa, and a shrine to the Madonna. The people who inhabit this living city are suffering the blows to the reputation of the city of the dead; hotel owners report that tourism has declined to a worrying extent. By giving Pompeii a chance here and now, we can help the ancient city live on in the future.