It’s easy to imagine lounging in the garden at the sprawling villa of Julia Felix, a savvy Roman businesswoman who lived in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii in the first century AD. There would have fresh figs, apricots and walnuts to savour. The warm sea breeze would have blended the dry scent of cypress and bay leaves with the stench of rubbish from the street, and the gurgle of water in the baths would have been occasionally drowned out by cries from the crowd in the 20,000-seat amphitheater nearby.
On a recent weekday morning, a slow-moving line of tourists snaked through the elegant estate, admiring what’s left of the elaborate frescoes, deep-set dining room and marble pillars. Nearly 2,000 years have passed since Pompeii and its surroundings were buried under ash and rock following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. But this estate, which recently reopened following extensive restoration, appears much as it would have looked when Felix still welcomed her paying guests.
The renewed Felix estate is just one outcome of a multi-year project that was meant to save Pompeii from a crisis caused by decades - even centuries - of underfunding and mismanagement. The Great Pompeii Project, scheduled to wrap up the end of this year, has secured many of the site’s threatened buildings, led to important discoveries and significantly improved the experience for tourists.
But challenges persist. Some observers worry that Pompeii could slide back into disrepair.
Plundered and ravaged by private excavators
Since concerted excavations began in the middle of the 18th century, Pompeii’s rich homes, tombs and public buildings have been plundered by looters, exploited by profit-hungry private excavators, and (in some early cases) “restored” so aggressively as to spoil the original treasures. Allied bombing in 1943 struck the on-site museum and severely damaged several houses. Following World War II, the Italian government launched widespread excavations to create jobs for the unemployed. A severe earthquake in 1980 further weakened the ancient city’s structures. Funding for preservation - though not necessarily for excavation - was often in short supply.
In 2008, the Italian government declared a year-long state of emergency for Pompeii.
In November 2010 the Schola Armaturarum, or House of the Gladiators, partially collapsed following heavy rains, triggering negative headlines across Europe and beyond. UNESCO, which had added the ancient city to its list of World Heritage sites in 1997, sent a team to assess the situation. The resulting report warned that “a considerable number” of other buildings were also at risk.
The negative attention finally triggered an influx of financing. In March 2012, the European Commission approved funding, with the goal of securing the ancient city as an enduring attraction in the region. When combined with money from the Italian government, the funds came to 105 million euros (about $116 million). The following month, “The Great Pompeii Project” was launched.
“Now we are out of the emergency,” Francesco Muscolino, an archaeologist with the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, said in his office on the edge of the ancient city. He added that the park became an autonomous entity a few years ago, which means that it can now keep all of the revenues from ticket sales (adult entry costs 15 euros, roughly $16.50). In the past, Muscolino said, that income went directly to Italy’s Ministry of Economy and Finance, which would then pay back a portion of the revenue to the park.
Rising number of visitors: threat or blessing?
Not everyone is as confident as Muscolino. Antonio Irlando, an architect and director of the Osservatorio Patrimonio Culturale, a cultural heritage watchdog group, said that revenue from ticket sales must be supported by additional funds from the government.
The conservation of Pompeii is “a duty that the government of Italy has to every Italian and to the whole world,” he said, adding that “a few years of lots of money is not enough to save Pompeii.” The focus, he stressed, must be on continual, painstaking maintenance.
One problem, Irlando claims, is that there are not enough guards to watch out for misbehaviour among tourists. “Not everyone remembers that the excavations are an archaeological monument and not an amusement park,” Irlando said.
Managing tourist behaviour has always been a challenge in Pompeii, an archaeological site that spans an area larger than 120 US football fields. And now tourist numbers are higher than ever. In 2009, nearly 2.1 million people visited. By 2018, that figure had risen to more than 3.6 million, an increase of more than 70%. This year, the number will be even higher. Nearly 450,000 people visited Pompeii in July, marking the highest monthly figure ever recorded.
And the behaviour of visitors to the ancient city has long been troublesome. A small exhibition in the Antiquarium showcases stolen objects that visitors have sent back to Pompeii, claiming that the tiles, stones or figurines brought them bad luck. The new video cameras have improved surveillance, but the site is so big that plenty of areas remain unwatched.
How tourists are ruining Pompeii
“It is a risk. I’m glad that one-third of the city is still buried,” said Glauco Messina, a licensed tour guide who added that he has seen visitors jumping barriers, picking up illicit mementos, touching frescoes, setting up tripods on fragile stone walls, and using flash photography, which can damage ancient paint. The situation isn’t helped by tourist companies that run unauthorized tours, often led by guides with uncertain qualifications.
“We’ve denounced them I don’t know how many times, but they’re still there,” Messina said of unauthorised guides, who often lead very large groups and continue to operate in the park despite an official ban.
Messina and other licensed guides - who must pass rigorous exams to earn their official “Guida Turistica” badges - warned that tourists should be wary of anyone who approaches them on the street outside the park.
Can there be a balance?
For visitors such as Sherry Pressman of Pembroke Pines, Florida, who visited Pompeii with her husband in August, the experience of walking through the ancient city was even better than she had expected. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said, “but it does need some more repair.”
The tourist experience will be critical to Pompeii’s future, perhaps just as much as excavations have been the defining feature of the site’s recent past. The goal must be to strike a balance between tourism and preservation, said Mary Beard, a professor of classics at Cambridge University and author of an award-winning book on Pompeii.
“At one extreme, we have the nightmare scenario of the site being wrapped in cotton wool and accessible only to the privileged,” Beard wrote in an email. “At the other, we have the nightmare scenario of the site being flooded with visitors, clambering over the walls and ripping bits of mosaic from the floor. Our job is the find the right point in between.”
How big is Pompeii?
It’s an archaeological site that spans an area larger than 120 US football fields.
What happened to Pompeii?
This ancient Roman city located in the modern comune of Pompei near Naples in the Campania region of Italy. Pompeii, along with Herculaneum and many villas in the surrounding area was buried under 4 to 6 m (13 to 20 ft) of volcanic ash and pumice in the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.
Largely preserved under the ash, the excavated city offers a unique snapshot of Roman life, frozen at the moment it was buried and providing an extraordinarily detailed insight into the everyday life of its inhabitants. It was a wealthy town, enjoying many fine public buildings and luxurious private houses with lavish decorations, furnishings and works of art which were the main attractions for the early excavators.
The New York Times News Service