Pompeii, one of the most fascinating archaeological sites in the world, is crumbling and at risk of being destroyed for a second time.
Culture Minister Walter Veltroni recently dubbed it "the most endangered archaeological site in Italy."
The danger this time is not from nearby Mount Vesuvius, which buried the Roman city in AD 79, but steady erosion by tourists and the elements. Pompeii is Italy's favorite tourist destination, according to the Ministry of Culture. In 1997 alone, close to 2 million people visited the site.
But popularity has its price. "The conservation problems have mounted up to such an extent that unless something radical is done pretty rapidly, there's a grave risk of irreversible damage," warns Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, director of the British School of Archaeology, History, and Letters in Rome. Professor Wallace-Hadrill is leading an excavation project at Pompeii.
In the 250 years since excavations first began, neglect, poor management, and vandalism have taken their toll, he says. The decay is manifest in the number of Pompeii's houses that have been closed to the public, mainly due to unstable walls. Only 14 remain open, compared with 64 in 1956. At present just 20 of the more than 108 excavated acres are accessible to the public.
"Since an earthquake in 1980, a large part of the city has been declared off limits," says Irene Bragantini, an Italian archaeologist and Pompeii expert. "This has led to an increasingly difficult situation because the growing population of tourists is forced to visit the same areas all the time."
The tourists don't seem to mind, however. "This place is incredible. I can sense the way people used to live here. I can walk along their streets and into their homes," says Leonardo, from Argentina.
Few tourists are fully aware of the history and sheer size of Pompeii, says tour guide Renato Riccio. "They arrive and immediately want to see everything, they ask one question after the other.... But after a while they get tired because Pompeii is huge," he says.
Although generally well-behaved, tourists are partly responsible for "consuming" Pompeii, stealing bits of the delicate mosaics to take home as souvenirs. They rub dirty hands on the frescoes and in some cases add graffiti to precious wall-paintings.
"On Easter Monday alone 25,000 to 30,000 people visit the site," says a custodian. "We are unable to keep all those people under control. How can we ensure they don't do any damage? It's impossible."
In the past, vandals have snapped off pieces of statues, and thieves have come at night to steal valuable items.
The weather is a further cause of degradation. The scorching sun in the summer and rains in winter fade the frescoes. Once rich in "Pompeii red," many have now become pinkish-gray.
Italian authorities recently took significant steps to try to resolve Pompeii's problems. At the end of 1997 the government passed a law enabling Pompeii to manage its own money, including ticket sales, raise cash on international financial markets, and strike corporate sponsorship deals. Early this year, the Culture Ministry unveiled plans for a five-year emergency restoration program, funded largely through the private sector. While specific sponsors will not be made public before June, Fiat, American Express, and IBM are some of the more than 100 firms expected to take part.
"The objective is to obtain a total of 100 billion lira [$55 million] each year for conservation work that will allow all [108 acres] excavated to be reopened by the year 2003," declared Prof. Giuseppe Gherpelli, the newly appointed city manager.
Each sponsor will be able to "adopt" an area, but Professor Gherpelli dismisses concerns that companies will erect huge logos outside the ancient homes. "I don't think large signs will be put up because we need to make every effort to ensure that Pompeii can be seen as it was in the past," he says.
"The current government is trying to do its best, but it takes a long time to turn the course of this liner," says archaeologist Wallace-Hadrill. "The most important thing is that Italian politicians have taken on board the importance of cultural heritage for the whole economy and success of the country."