A Unesco report has identified serious problems with the World Heritage Site, including structural damage to buildings, vandalism and a lack of qualified staff. Unesco’s director-general for culture, Francesco Bandarin, tells The Art Newspaper: “The state of conservation is a problem, because of a lack of maintenance of very fragile structures. Visitor services need a dramatic improvement.”
The collapse of a column at Pompeii on 22 December raised further alarm. The column was in a pergola in the courtyard of the House of Loreio Tiburtino, whose adjacent rooms have very fine frescoes.
The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD killed Pompeii’s inhabitants but preserved their buildings. The city was covered with ash, and it was only after its rediscovery in 1748 that excavations began. In 1997, Unesco designated it a World Heritage Site. The Pompeii crisis came to a head with the collapse of the Schola Armaturarum, known as the House of the Gladiators, in November 2010, along with three further collapses later in the month. This was after extremely heavy rain.
Unesco sent a mission supervised by Christopher Young, the head of world heritage and international policy at English Heritage, who says that Pompeii represents “the world’s most important Roman remains, in terms of what it tells us about daily life”. He was assisted by two Paris-based specialists representing the International Council on Monuments and Sites: Jean-Pierre Adam, a professor at the Ecole du Louvre, and Alix Barbet, the director of research at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Their report, which has had virtually no international press coverage, was submitted last June to Unesco’s World Heritage Committee in Paris. It covers Pompeii and the nearby sites of Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata, on the outskirts of Naples.
The Unesco report says that the “conditions that caused [the Schola Armaturarum] collapses are widespread within the site”. Storms last autumn raised fears of further significant damage, but so far it has not been serious.
Although much of Pompeii remains in good repair, the problems are numerous, including “inappropriate restoration methods and a general lack of qualified staff… restoration projects are outsourced and the quality of the work of the contractors is not being assessed. An efficient drainage system is lacking, leading to water infiltration and excessive moisture that gradually degrades the structural condition of the buildings as well as their decor. The mission was also concerned by the amount of plant growth, particularly ivy.”
Staffing at Pompeii remains a fundamental problem. The structure is “very rigid”, with “jobs being secure until retirement”, making it “virtually impossible to recruit new staff”. Although around 470 people are employed at Pompeii, it is “very short” of professional staff, there are “very few” maintenance workers and only 23 guards are on site at any one time.
The guards do not wear uniforms and fail to display their badges. The experts observed them “grouped together in threes or fours”, which meant there was a limited presence on the enormous site. Since 1987, the number of guards has been reduced by a quarter while visitor numbers have increased considerably.
Pompeii attracted more than 2.3 million visitors in 2010 and on the busiest days it had 20,000. Sheer numbers, along with careless behaviour, are causing considerable damage: “Visitors in groups rub against the decorated walls, all too often with their rucksacks, or lean against them to take the best possible photographs,” says the report.
A further problem is that much of Pompeii is “closed”. In 1956, 66 restored houses were open to visitors, but this number has fallen to 15 (only five of which are always open). “Large areas of Pompeii are not accessible to visitors owing to the lack of guards, so accessible parts are overvisited and suffer considerably from visitor erosion,” according to the report. The mission found that the most serious vandalism was in houses that are closed to visitors, because of “the derisory effectiveness of efforts to prohibit access”.
Management changes have resulted in further problems. In July 2008, the Italian government declared Pompeii to be in a “state of emergency”, putting it under special administration until July 2010 (two commissioners served during this period: Renato Profili and then Marcello Fiori). There have been four successive superintendents since September 2009: Mariarosaria Salvatore, Giuseppe Proietti, Jeannette Papadopoulos and Teresa Elena Cinquantaquattro.
The Unesco mission found that, although a management plan was drawn up in 2008, “site staff were not able to show clearly that the plan was actually used”. Scarce resources have been diverted from conservation and maintenance to “non-urgent” projects, such as the reconstruction of the theatre. The report says that such projects were “probably done with an educational aim in mind, but may also reflect a certain attraction for ‘entertainment archaeology’.”
“Uncontrolled development” near Pompeii is also criticised. At its meeting last June, Unesco approved a resolution saying that it “deeply regrets” not having been informed about the construction of “a large concrete building” north of the Porta di Nola. This is to be used by archaeologists for offices and storage.
Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, the superintendent of Pompeii from 1995 to 2009, says that the report is “very meticulous”. Its proposals are along the lines of those suggested during his tenure, but “delays” were caused mainly by staffing problems. Guzzo welcomes Unesco’s involvement, hoping it will “spur the Italian government to give Pompeii more resources, both financial and professional”.
With Unesco poised to assist Italian specialists, an action plan could be developed. This should provide a basis for spending the €105m that has been committed for Pompeii by the European Union. However, there are some concerns that the project may be affected by the withdrawal of $65m a year of Unesco funding from the US, following the admission of Palestine in October.
Unesco has asked the Italian authorities to introduce monitoring of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata by 1 February, along with a statement on the site’s “outstanding universal value”. A report must be submitted by February 2013 on “the possible inscription of the property on the list of World Heritage in Danger”.
Although Pompeii is among Italy’s most important heritage sites, it is not the only one to face intractable problems. Italy’s 47 World Heritage Sites include Venice and its Lagoon and the historic centre of Rome, to take two examples. However, Bandarin, an Italian citizen, stresses that Unesco’s agreement with Italy is “only for the World Heritage Site of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Torre Annunziata”.