A Brief Analysis of Conservation Disparities in Italian Heritage Sites
Mia S. Willis
During the early hours of the morning on Saturday, November 6, 2010, the House of the Gladiators – a building thought to have been used to train men in gladiatorial fighting tactics – at the ancient city of Pompeii collapsed into rubble. The collapse of the structure came on the heels of accusations by field professionals that the Pompeii site was being mismanaged; Antonio Varone, the site’s director of excavations, claimed that the damage was caused by faulty restorations conducted in the 1950s which were compounded with the heavy rain in the area at the time. However, many site officials were of the belief that the lack of funding for excavation and conservation was to blame. Culture Minister Sandro Bondi released an indignant statement to address this claim, stating that “I stand by the work that has been done here”, and if there was evidence to support his responsibility for the collapse, he would gladly resign. He did survive a no-confidence vote against him based on accusations of neglect and mismanagement in January 2010, but resigned from his position in March of the same year (Belenky, 2010).
Decades of neglect have contributed to Pompeii’s disrepair; frescoes are marked with graffiti, plant life overtakes walls and permeates buildings, and many of the most famous attractions are marked “lavori in corso” – “work in progress”. Even the plaster casts of ancient Romans who were preserved by the hot ash and pumice of Mount Vesuvius are encased in filthy glass with rust legged platforms. While there are a multitude of factors that contributed to the House of Gladiators’ ultimate destruction, former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s decision to cut heritage funding was likely the spark which set the archaeological world ablaze. Between 2007 and 2009, the funds allotted to care for Italy’s cultural sites dropped from 30 million euros to 19 million, a deficit that the 20 million euros made in revenue cannot absorb without great strain on resources. This wide margin, however, does not appear to impact the procedures of Herculaneum, Pompeii’s sister Roman city that was also destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius (Belenky, 2010).
In fact, in January of 2015, it was announced that a set of ancient scrolls incinerated in the eruption could be read and studied for the first time in almost 2,000 years due to a new X-ray technique. The documents were recovered 260 years ago in the ruins of a large domus believed to be that of Julius Caesar’s father-in-law, Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus, who was consul of Rome in 15 BC. The scrolls were burned black by a surge of superheated gas during the eruption and, similarly to the collection found at Qumran, were initially presumed to be unreadable as any attempt to unroll the fragile papyri would cause irreparable damage.
However, due new advancements in imaging technology, the first lines of two previously indecipherable scrolls are being analyzed by scientists in Naples, Italy. The X-rays are reportedly so powerful that researchers were able to conduct handwriting analysis in order to discern its author, leading to the attribution of one of the scrolls to Philodemus, an Epicurean philosopher at the time. The results of the process were detailed in scientific journal Nature. “It holds out the promise that many philosophical works form the library of the ‘Villa dei Papiri’, the contents of which have so far remained unknown, may in future be deciphered without damaging the papyrus in any way” (Jaggard, 2015).
The conservation disparities within the Italian material culture is driven by monetary gain. Herculaneum generates a larger amount of revenue for the Italian government, therefore securing the site’s access to resources and advancements in research within the archaeological community. Pompeii, however, is larger in surface area (40% of the remains at Pompeii have yet to be examined) and requires enormous sums of capital that it does not recuperate in crowd traffic. The site fell into disrepair because it was not as profitable for Italy as it was previously anticipated; in 2007, a state of emergency was declared for Pompeii, and two years of extra funds and special measures still did not return the site to its desired integrity. The cyclical nature of neglect in the prominent archaeological sites in Italy should be cause for concern all over the globe. As respected periodical Corriere della Sera stated in its editorial regarding the issues of Pompeii, “this archeological area, which is unique in the world, is unfortunately the symbol of all the sloppiness and inefficiencies of a country that has lost its good sense and has not managed to recover it” (October 2010).
Belenky, S. (2010, November 7). “Pompeii’s ‘House Of The Gladiators’ Collapses, Italy’s Government Accused Of Neglecting World Heritage Site”. TheHuffingtonPost.com. Retrieved November 19, 2015.
Jaggard, V. (2015, January 20). “Ancient Scrolls Blackened by Vesuvius Are Readable at Last”. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved November 19, 2015.