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 civilisationby Peter Popham / April 29, 2010 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2010 issue of Prospect Magazine
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.”
Over the following 1,500 years, the existence of the two towns was largely forgotten. Some local plundering seems to have occurred in the middle ages, and Pompeiian frescoes were unearthed in the 1590s, only to be covered over again. It was not until the late 18th century that systematic excavation got underway and people realised the degree to which the towns remained intact. “Many disasters have befallen the world,” Goethe said, “but few which have given posterity such delight… I have seldom seen anything so interesting.” Figures such as Charles, the first Bourbon king of Naples, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister Caroline, and Mussolini were inspired by the sites, and devoted resources to excavating them. As Unesco’s inspectors said, when placing the sites on its world heritage list in 1997, the towns provide “a complete and vivid picture of society and daily life at a specific moment in the past that is without parallel anywhere in the world.”