POMPEII, Italy – Destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Pompeii survived excavation starting in the 18th century and stoically has borne the wear and tear of millions of modern-day tourists.
Now its deep-hued frescoes, brick walls and elegant tile mosaics appear to be at risk from an even greater threat: the bureaucracy of the Italian state.
In recent years, collapses at the site have alarmed conservationists, who warn that this ancient Roman city is dangerously exposed to the elements — and is poorly served by the red tape, the lack of strategic planning and the limited personnel of the site’s troubled management.
The site’s decline has captured the attention of the European Union, which began a $137 million effort in February that aims to balance preservation with accessibility to tourists. Called the Great Pompeii Project, the effort also seeks to foster a culture-driven economy in an area dominated by the Neapolitan Mafia.
In a telling juxtaposition, however, a day before the project was initiated in February, the police arrested the head of a construction company hired to modify an ancient theater at Pompeii on charges of inflating costs and violating the terms of an earlier preservation project. And last week a team of law-enforcement officers and labor inspectors conducted a surprise inspection to make sure that the local Mafia had not strong-armed its way into the restoration work.
Pompeii’s problems stem from its status as “one of the biggest and most important sites in the world” and its location “in one of the areas with the highest concentration of organized crime in all of Europe,” said Fabrizio Barca, the minister for territorial cohesion in the caretaker government of Prime Minister Mario Monti.
Still, Barca expressed confidence that the program would be successful and that it would prove that the Italian government could get things done.
“The project is going to reshape the way things are dealt with,” he said. “If we don’t preserve Pompeii, then the state has failed.”
Since the 1990s, a series of special administrations have been put in charge of Pompeii. In 2008 the government of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi named a special commissioner for the site, giving him powers to subvert routine bureaucracy, but the post was dissolved in 2010. This year one commissioner was placed under judicial investigation on suspicion of using state money for projects that went beyond maintenance.
Watchdogs question why several new buildings were built at Pompeii at great expense and with unclear scope. The investigations have blocked some tourist-friendly initiatives, including plans to convert a villa on the grounds into a restaurant and another building into a museum.
Pompeii has “always been an emergency” since it first was excavated in 1748, said Grete Stefani, the current archaeological director of the site. The most recent crisis phase began in November 2010, when the Schola Armaturarum, which housed an ancient military order, crumbled into the street after a period of torrential rain.
At a time when the decadent Berlusconi government was in tumult, the collapse hit a nerve, capturing the general air of decline in Italy after decades of deferred political and economic maintenance. Magistrates are investigating the collapse.
In Pompeii, conservators repeatedly are forced to shore up crumbling walls and water-damaged frescoes rather than plan the systematic maintenance of the 163-acre site to prevent sudden collapses.
“Pompeii is an appropriate metaphor for this country,” said Sergio Rizzo, a journalist at Corriere della Sera and an author of a book on the mismanagement of Italy’s cultural heritage. “It’s a beautiful place … but it also reveals the workings of Italian chaos.”