Ashes to ashes: the latter-day ruin of Pompeii

Prospect Magazine

Ashes to ashes: the latter-day ruin of Pompeii


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.”

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.”

But today they are so reduced that it is hard to guess what went on among the ruins. Profili’s dogs ramble around, crapping where they see fit. The great majority of the houses are in such decay that people aren’t allowed to enter them. Broken fences and signboards tell of torpor and indifference. Nearby Herculaneum, where many frescoes and mosaics have been irreparably damaged by rainwater, is an archaeological casualty ward; a team funded by the US billionaire David Packard is fighting to save what it can. Twice officially inaugurated, the site’s museum has never opened to the public.

Pompeii and Herculaneum are where archaeology as a science was born. They draw millions of visitors a year—but their state is a disgrace to Italy, Unesco and European civilisation. Not so long ago, the magic of these sites was still vivid. In 1924, Amedeo Maiuri, an archaeologist, was put in charge of them. He held that position until 1961, devoting superhuman energy to his work. The sites became a key element in Mussolini’s project for restoring national pride in ancient Rome, which in turn ensured a steady flow of funds and visitors.

Herculaneum, less well-known but in some ways more stunning than Pompeii, is Maiuri’s great memorial. The eruption of Vesuvius which buried Pompeii in about three metres of volcanic ash and rock entombed Herculaneum to a depth of more than 20 metres. As a result the plundering of Pompeii’s treasures happened early, while Herculaneum was largely forgotten. The rocky tuff that encased the town was a major challenge and it took heroic determination to remove it and expose its perfectly preserved villas, baths and shops.

Domenico Camardo, lead archaeologist on the Herculaneum Conservation Project, describes the work that went into the liberation of the buried town. While excavators drilled and hammered, masons worked alongside them, hurriedly propping up structures at risk of collapse; then carpenters and restorers dived in to carry out first aid on the decorative features. Once the buildings were safe, carpenters, marble-workers and gardeners took care of the restoration and furnishing of the houses with the aim of reopening them to the public. Maiuri wanted visitors to be able to experience the sites as they were immediately before disaster struck. “They even went so far as to replant the gardens,” Camardo says. “The most important objects found during the excavations were placed on view inside display cases that were built in situ. The houses were preserved in every detail, the furnishings and objects from daily life were put back in place.

“The city became an open-air museum in which the finds were contextualised—not just artistic objects, but also objects illustrating daily life: the walnuts found in a shop; plates with remains of fruit or food. To allow visitors a better view into interior spaces Maiuri chose in many cases not to reconstruct external walls, floor plates or balconies… In this way wall paintings and furnishings of the upper floors could be viewed from below.” Visiting the sites then was an experience as close to time travel as you could get. Today it’s rather different.

Some of the 2m tourists who visit Pompeii annually

Leaving the would-be dog-adopters to wrestle with their problem, I set out for a walk. It is early spring and La Campania is already beginning to warm up: blue sky and a hazy sun. Vesuvius is an innocuous-looking mound to the north. Birds chirrup, a breeze tousles the greenery. The charm of Pompeii is that it is set apart from the modern town, so once you get away from the coaches and the cafés and are swallowed up in the enormous site there is no sense of the 21st century pressing around.

But there is precious little sense of the first century either. There are the cart tracks: the town’s ancient roads are paved with large, roughly flat stones which have clearly been in place from early in its history, because the wheels of carts have incised deep ruts in them. When Pompeii was buried it was already ancient: that’s what the cart tracks tell us more eloquently than anything else. But in other respects the site, about two thirds of which has been excavated, is mute.

Along the main roads leading into the town there is little to detain a visitor. Broken, irregular stone walls open on to cell-like enclosures which must once have been houses or shops, but are now unmarked, uncared-for and featureless. Wooden fences were erected in front of them to keep the curious out, but many have been smashed. The interiors are carpeted in weeds. Larger properties, villas of the town’s grandees, are fronted by steel gates, but most are padlocked. Signposts without signs; tin roofs poking from ancient masonry; locked gates enclosing rampant weeds: they all tell the same story.

Debris and decay at Pompeii

Debris and decay at Pompeii

The plan of the excavations, which is issued with the entrance ticket, lists 72 houses and temples of importance but warns “some buildings may be closed.” This is an understatement: in the centre of the town, where most of the tourism is concentrated, half the listed properties are shut up. There is no indication if any of them might open again.

The tour groups arrive—French, American, German and Japanese—the chirruping of their guides competing with the songs of the birds. Following them around I discover that the guides keep to a tight and repetitive itinerary. They visit the forum, which according to the Blue Guide, is “the most perfect example known of a Roman central square.” Then the House of the Faun with its eponymous statue (a copy), plus its fabulous mosaic of Alexander the Great challenging the Persians (likewise, a copy) and its garden. They tramp around the House of the Little Fountain and the House of Pansa, they admire the mosaic (another copy) of the famous cave canem sign in front of the House of the Tragic Poet, though the house itself is locked. And they hike up the Via Consolare to see the most famous house on the site, the Villa of the Mysteries, with its stunning frescoes of Bacchanalian rites.

And if the majority of what Pompeii theoretically has to offer is locked and off limits, the tourists’ route helps explain why. More than 2m visitors pass through Pompeii every year, and because so few of the important features are open, most only pass through the listed houses and a few others. The wear and tear is tremendous. The frescoes, the principal attraction of the houses that are open, are exposed to the weather and only protected from visitors by ropes. There are a few guards on the site, but none were on duty in those houses during my visit. There is nothing to deter tourists from chipping off a fragment of fresco as a souvenir.

So the same entropic process that has already led to the closure of the great majority of large homes will inevitably overtake the popular houses too. Pompeii will become less and less interesting, less and less extraordinary, year by year.

The scale of the town, and the fact that its ancient fabric has not been buried under later development, means that Pompeii remains magically evocative. But in the 50 years since Maiuri hung up his trowel, the authorities have done little to help visitors appreciate it. Pompeii gives an impression of yawning vacancy. Nearly all of its treasures, statues, frescoes and the bodies of its inhabitants, were long ago carted off to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples—where half the galleries are now closed because of a funding crisis.

Since 1997, both sites have been allowed to keep the profits from ticket sales, around €20m (£17.5m) a year, instead of being dependent on the ministry of culture. Some of the gate money has been ploughed into ambitious refurbishment works, including Pompeii’s House of the Chaste Lovers, which has just been unveiled. But any commanding sense of what must be done to save the sites, a vision to rank with Maiuri’s, is still strikingly missing. In tacit recognition of that fact, Italy’s minister of culture, Sandro Bondi, has just announced plans to set up a public-cum-private foundation to run them.

Why have the sites been allowed to deteriorate so badly? Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, superintendent of the sites since 1994, blames the government. “There was very little money available,” he said, “and that meant only emergency work could be carried out. Financial autonomy has granted a more suitable level of funding, but it is still much less than what is required.”

But impecuniousness is only part of the story. Both sites are located in areas notorious for organised crime, with rackets run by the Camorra, the Naples mafia, within spitting distance of the front gates. The port of Ercolano, the suburb of Naples in which Herculaneum sits, is said to be a focal point for the Camorra-run drugs trade. Up until the 19th century, Ercolano was a seaside resort for grandees, but today the old villas are hemmed in by squalor. Gang shootings are common on the streets.

More significant are the blunders of officialdom: a succession of mistakes and misfortunes, local and international, have conspired to turn Maiuri’s masterpiece into a disaster. Thanks to David Packard, we now know what went wrong.

Archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, who runs a never-ending restoration project

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, who runs a never-ending restoration project

Ten years ago Packard, a philanthropist with an interest in classics (and the eldest son of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard), decided to try to save Herculaneum. He recruited a team of specialists led by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, then professor of archaeology at Reading University. Wallace-Hadrill and his colleagues persuaded Guzzo that an infusion of private money and independent expertise could haul Herculaneum back from the brink. Nearly ten years and €15m later, work is still going on.

Jane Thompson, project manager for the Herculaneum Conservation Project, spelled out in a recent paper the mess the team found. “By the late 1990s,” she wrote, “the site was in a state of such serious neglect that it began to attract international attention. The absence of regular maintenance had brought about a serious and widespread state of disrepair and decay… compounded by the lack of much-needed remedial work on the ancient city’s infrastructure and the fact that previous restoration interventions were themselves aging… The very closure of houses… brought about an acceleration in the deterioration process; with no one visiting them their decay escalated unchecked, pigeons installed themselves and the houses became too unsafe to access.” The result was that the area open to the public “has gradually reduced down to roughly a third of the area that was open to the public 40 years ago. In parallel, the number of visitors has more or less tripled… with consequential wear and tear.”

Wallace-Hadrill, now master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, is still in charge of Packard’s work on the site and visits twice a month. His English reserve melted long ago in the Campania sunshine and his passion for Herculaneum is infectious. He explained why the very richness of the Pompeii sites makes their conservation a mind-boggling challenge.

“There is an assumption that by digging stuff up you have saved it,” he says. “Except you haven’t. It’s stable when it’s underground. But the moment you excavate you start the clock again. It comes back to life which means it starts dying. I remember being struck at Pompeii by the fact that you’ve got almost as much human activity today on site with the tourists as there was in antiquity. Inevitably you have a problem, and it’s a generalised problem for all archaeology. The 19th and 20th centuries were the heroic ages for picking up loads of stuff and feeling that you’d rediscovered the past—and not thinking about the problems of keeping it going. But because Pompeii and Herculaneum are better preserved, thanks to the volcano, there is more to lose. And this is compounded by the acute problems of the local management.”

These were the problems that began after the departure of Amedeo Maiuri. Maiuri was a human hurricane, but when he retired in 1961 the wind dropped away. As so often in Italy, power resided not in the position or institution but the person. Once he was gone, the impetus went with him. The time was ripe for consolidation, but there is nothing glamorous about that as a career. And routine maintenance, as anyone who has lived in Italy knows, goes against the national grain.

Then there were the problems beyond the management’s control. Over the years, the local artisans who had kept the site ticking over were forced out when new European health and safety standards deemed their workshops substandard. Their work was outsourced to firms with no special loyalty to the sites, and the informal correcting of small problems reduced. When the problems on the sites became more daunting, what Jane Thompson calls “the cripplingly procedure-heavy administrative machine,” which requires three years of paperwork between three public organisations just to validate a period of sick leave, proved inadequate to the task.

The result was the shambles that Wallace-Hadrill and his team found in 2001. The condition of the many flat roofs that had been built over the ancient houses was one of the more startling examples. “Flat roofs are a neat solution for protecting houses that have lost their roofs,” he said, “but if you don’t maintain them the drain on the roof gets blocked, so gradually it turns into a tank of mulch. Plants grow in this wet mulch and their roots grow through the asphalt until the roof is completely destroyed. Then you get water running in down the frescoes… We’ve had dozens of examples of this.”

The dire state of the site forced Wallace-Hadrill and his team to change their strategy radically. “We initially came in and said we would do a big restoration project on one corner of the site and do it really well. But we became aware that if this took five years, it would take us 30 years to do the entire site. So we shifted from doing a definitive job in one place to addressing lots of basic problems right across the site.”

The result is ironic: while the state-employed managers use the box-office takings to embark on flashy makeovers—a new ticket office with fountains, a muscular-looking bridge—the American mogul’s millions have been spent on fixing the roofs, unplugging the drains and “trying to create a sort of worksheet,” as Wallace-Hadrill puts it, so the boring but vital everyday tasks get done when his team pulls out in the near future.

After spending all that money, it sounds like a pretty frail sort of legacy. On the other side of the scales, there are politicians whose idea of solving the problem is to send in officials obsessed with prostitutes and stray dogs.

No one I spoke to backed my personal theory that the gangsters have it in for Pompeii: the money, I was told, is small beer for them, and all those foreigners hanging around make them queasy. So that’s one problem we can cross off the list—until a tour bus gets caught in the crossfire.

Can’t UNESCO save Pompeii?


Pompeii and Herculaneum have been listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites since 1997. So why isn’t the world’s culture policeman keeping the world’s most important Roman sites in order?

In fact, Unesco’s role in identifying and protecting world heritage is strictly advisory. Sites which have deteriorated gravely since being listed may be put on a danger list, and if deterioration continues, they may lose their listing altogether. But, as Pompeii was already in an appalling state when it obtained its listing, it is unlikely to lose its status.

Unesco depends largely on information provided by state authorities—so for Pompeii’s entry in the world heritage website, the “threat” box is blank. “World heritage site values have been maintained,” it asserts baldly. A description of work underway reads: “Superintendence is progressively replacing reinforced concrete… with proper stuff compatible with ancient structures and easily reversible. All these works have been improving the conditions of integrity of the archeological [sic] properties also raising the monuments’ level of authenticity.” Regarding management, it simply states, “The current management system is highly effective.”

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.

  1. May 4, 2010


    It is unfortunate that Italy’s politics and economics are so badly undermined by corruption, organized crime etc. The state of the ruins is a reflection of their other problems. If they could get their act together, the restorations of Pompeii and Herculaneum would be industries unto themselves; generating an economy of steady employment for the restorations and long-term maintenance, as well as generating revenue from tourism. It’s a lost opportunity for Italy but Italy’s entire modern history is replete with lost opportunities.

  2. May 11, 2010

    David M. Rowe

    As it happens, my wife and I visited Pompeii over the Easter Holiday. Not only is the site in sad disrepair, but there are some other glaring shortcomings that would require little money to correct. The most obvious is that tourists are supplied with an excellent site map with names for all the streets and sites. On the ground, however, there are no signs indicating the street where you are standing! Imagine how useful a highly detailed map of London would be if there were no street signs. That gives a sense of how lame the whole thing is.

  3. May 27, 2010

    Wayne Woodrow

    It was for good luck for Italy when Pompei and Herculaneum were re-discovered. But it was very bad luck for Pompei and Herculaneum that they were re-discovered and found themselves in the modern Italy. There is nothing special about the treatment of these sites. Pretty much the entire Italian legacy is treated the same way. I have lived here in Italy for years and have seen the same thing over and over again.

    Wayne Woodrow
    Viareggio, Italy

  4. May 27, 2010

    Kathleen Naureckas

    It was Pliny the Younger who wrote about the eruption of Vesuvius. Pliny the Elder, his uncle, died in the disaster.

  5. May 27, 2010


    All Italy’s museums are hostages to the public employee unions and government agency officials. That is where the money goes, that is where the nonsense comes from. Hence the fancy ticket office. They will finish the job Vesuvius started.

  6. May 28, 2010


    In 2005 I found Pompeii indescribably beautiful, despite the closed-off buildings. Unfortunately, the union had decided not to open up shop until 12:30pm, so I only had half a day to visit. I hope I can go back someday.

  7. May 28, 2010

    J. Petersfield

    I enjoyed the ruins when I visited 6 years ago, but I was disgusted by the amount of grafetti that was on the sites, what kind of person defaces a centuries old ruin with their stupid name.

  8. May 28, 2010


    What did everyone expect? This is what happens when you let Italians run things.

  9. May 28, 2010

    Kay Stratton

    This was bound to happen. Ilived in Rome from 1964_ t970. and worked in the cameroni of the British school restoring items found. it is apathy on the part of the Italians who, i fear suffer from a surfeit of antiquity!!Soon i fear Vesuvius will errupt again, thousands will die and it will all be buried once more_ history repeats itself.

  10. June 7, 2010


    We had only one day to visit Pompeii, and it was closed by a \sciopero,\ a strike. Reading this article, it saddens me that this valuable site is so degraded. We visited Knossos on Crete, and it was so well restored, with colors all bright and fresh.
    Why can’t Italy do as well as Greece?

  11. June 14, 2010


    it’s a pity they are letting this happen to such historical site.

  12. November 12, 2010


    Thank you for this accurate, if depressing, report. Many people wish Italy’s archaeological sites weren’t in Italy! May I add a footnote: the 18th c. also saw the discovery, in what came to be called the Villa dei Papiri (in Herculaneum), of hundreds of papyri rolls now (mostly) housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples. These are what are left of an unparalleled private collection of philosophical and literary texts, study of which has vastly expanded and enriched our knowledge of Epicurean philosophy as well as of the way ancient books were created. Visitors to the library’s Officina dei Papiri, where the texts are read, are welcome—but unfortunately it was recently closed because of structural problems in surrounding rooms. Let us hope Italian bureaucractic and institutional inertia and infighting do not mean this treasure-house is out of bounds to scholars or the general public for long.

  13. September 9, 2012

    Carlo Marchiori

    Italians invented archeology and cultural heritage preservation in Italy is, acknowledgedly, the most advanced in the world. Go and see Giotto’s Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova to have a taste how preservation is handled in Italy.

    The prejudices against Italy and Italians on this page are simply disgusting.

    Pompeii is an enourmous site, a whole city unearthed, and it poses problems totally unparalleled elsewhere.

    • October 17, 2012

      Richard Hankins


      judging by your name, you are Italian. I’m afraid the comments here are not “prejudice” – they are just what unbiased observers can see with their own eyes.

      I visited Pompeii today, and was shocked by the way it is literally falling to pieces. What a shame that the site is in Italy. If you want to see how historic sites are properly handled, then come to the UK. I can’t think of a single site in the UK that is neglected like Pompeii, and I have been to hundreds.

      And to add to the neglect, there is the very poor “visitor experience”. Famous houses, recommended as “must sees” in all the guide books are closed off – with no indication if they will ever re-open, or why they are closed. Streets that are closed off, making crossing the site more of an expedition than a pleasure.

      Instead of having a go at visitors, try kicking your own government up its backside…..

      • March 31, 2013

        Steve Hoyland

        Well said Richard! I agree entirely with everything you say. Although I’ve never had the opportunity to visit Pompeii,like yourself I’ve been all over the UK visiting historic sites and ALL have been well maintained and staffed by devoted people with good knowledge of their subject. I’ll never understand how the Italians can neglect such National AND International treasures as Pompeii and Herculaneum – properly done,these wonderful places could generate every penny needed for their upkeep. There Is no excuse, It’s pure ignorance.

    • March 31, 2013

      Steve Hoyland

      This Is’n't prejudice – people like you ALWAYS jump on the ‘Racism’ bandwagon! It’s simply a matter of why the Italian government allow one of the worlds most important archaeological and historical sites to fall Into such a terrible state of disrepair? It could pay for Itself If managed by someone with a little sense!Telling us to go view a statue doesn’t make up for the fact that what’s happening to Pompeii Is disgusting and Italian tourism Is shooting Itself In the foot!

  14. March 31, 2013

    Steve Hoyland

    What an interesting story – I had no idea that Pompeii and Herculaneum were In such a state – I assumed,like many others I’m sure,that these places were being looked after and preserved by numerous organisations and that the many paying(and donating) visitors would easily provide the necessary funding.How can the Italian government be so indifferent towards these most important National and International treasurse? It’s disgusting and ignorant. How did the might of Rome gradually sink to become the bunch of wasters It Is today?!

  15. November 10, 2013

    jenny derrett

    Hello fellow ancient history enthusiasts… just come back from a trip to this area and visited pompei twice, herculaneum and the oplontis site also (which was mostly closed!!!)I sspent many hours on the site. at pompei and covered most of the areas that are currently open. I last visited forty years ago and I am truly horrified at the level of neglect that has occured in this time frame…all thats been said before is true …huge areas closed without explanation ….no on site guards…waste paper bins everywhere but many more stray dogs why??? Site maps did not match up.. frescoes are damp and decaying..mosaics are covered in moss… the site looks like it is being vandalised on a daily basis amazingly it is still magical, just by its very size and because so many structures that are identifiable remain ( the ampi theatre etxc) but all else is neglect and ruin, it is very disheartening wake up italy your modern day culture has no parallel with its glorious (if imperial) past…sincerely hoping for the best semper ad meliora! and all that… In fairness, the archaeological museum in naples ,was very impressive and many of the areas were open to the public.. it was a relief to see most of the most stunning antiquities from the above sites, were ( at least at present) safe and well looked after The statues and murals are truly spectacular also gems bronzes and mosaics aaagh! jennyd (nov2013)

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Peter Popham

Peter Popham was the Rome correspondent for the Independent, 2002-09 

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