Tuesday, September 25, 2012

And you thought Pompeii's volcano was bad news?

Via Calgary Herald

Pompeii is no place for the faint-hearted traveller. Despair, incomprehension, horror ... and that's before you get into the history.

What the volcanic eruption of AD 79 started, Italy's modern governments have more or less completed. The site is falling to bits, the streets are awash with hot air, and everyone who ought to be in charge has run for cover. Frankie Howerd, as the slave Lurcio, in Up Pompeii! springs poignantly to mind. "How did my big speech go?" "Master, you brought the house down".

Two years ago, when the 2,000-year-old School of Gladiators collapsed, taking with it some of the finest frescoes of the early Roman era, Italy's president Georgio Napolitano spoke of a "national disgrace", and Silvio Berlusconi, the priapic greaser then serving as prime minister, promised to make more money available for conservation.

All that has happened is that the level of neglect has worsened, and funds are scarcer than ever. London's forthcoming blockbuster Pompeii exhibition may not deliver the same emotional wallop as a visit to the actual site, but at least the British Museum's roof is unlikely to land on your head.

The exhibition, to be staged next March, will take a take a strikingly different tack to Britain's last great Pompeii show at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1976. Rather than a sombre testament to a celebrated catastrophe, it will, says Neil MacGregor, the museum's director, offer a close-up look at everyday Roman-era life, fashioned around the homes, habits and possessions of those who lived in Pompeii and neighbouring Herculaneum.

Both towns were buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius over the course of 24 hours in late August AD?79. The ash and debris settled in drifts up to 20ft deep that hardened and sealed the towns over so completely that in time their existence were forgotten. The site was rediscovered more than 1,700 years later by a Spanish engineer supervising the foundations for a new palace for the King of Naples and the process of excavation began.

Beneath the ash, the towns lay in a state of uncanny preservation. The houses, shops, restaurants, temples, and the abundant brothels were exactly as they were when the people - or most of them - fled to the boats. The most startling discoveries, however, came with the macabre emergence of human forms in the lava. Those trapped had left their own affecting imprints, allowing archaeologists to create exact casts of their corpses. One group is of a young couple and their two small children, huddled together as the nightmare consumed them.
House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy
House of the Faun in Pompeii, Italy (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At least they were spared the horror that followed. Pompeii became a global tourist attraction, and responsibility for managing it was assumed by the Italian government. The decades of corruption, buck-passing and incompetence that ensued were mitigated to some extent by the ample monies Pompeii was able to generate. But since the financial crisis hit in 2008, the site has deteriorated at a terrifying speed.

Columns and walls stand (just), propped up by crude wooden joists and rusty steel scaffolding. Buildings too unstable to enter are sealed off by flapping lengths of tape and garish warnings. Pallets and piles of mouldering building materials lie everywhere. The conservation staff - drastically reduced by budget cuts - can no longer protect the precious mosaics and frescoes being chipped off by souvenir hunters, and the staff that remain are regularly on strike. The local Mafia, which effectively runs nearby Naples, maintains a flourishing protection racket, and the perimeters are plagued by peddlers and pickpockets.

When the Gladiators' house - which had survived both the volcano and an Allied bombing raid in 1943 - collapsed through penny-pinching and neglect, the leading newspaper La Repubblica called it "a world-class scandal". Since then, the Heritage Ministry has spoken only of the need to further reduce costs.

The most chastening aspect of this debacle is the contrast it reveals between modern and ancient Italy. The ruins show Pompeii - with a population of about 20,000 - to have been a prosperous city of astonishing sophistication, refinement and efficiency. There were courts, licensing authorities for cemeteries, bars and workshops, running water and drains. Art and literature flourished, work and leisure were taken seriously, and sex was taken more seriously still. In fact, the place appears to have been a veritable hothouse of carnality - as the extraordinary arrays of erotic statuary and murals illustrate - with every practice and preference. The locals would have thought Frankie Howerd tame.

In so far as the authorities still offer a defence for the state of the place, it is the site's sheer scale - 165 acres at Pompeii alone - and the virtual limitlessness of the preservation work that needs to be done. The buildings of Pompeii, they point out, were never intended to be still standing after 2,000 years, and especially not when the country is two trillion euros in debt. Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, a former superintendent, says that politicians use the problems of Italy's historical sites as convenient weapons to beat each other with, "while never coming up with workable solutions".

It is also fair to point out that old Pompeians weren't that good at dodging trouble. There were several warning signs of disaster, including an earthquake a few years before the eruption. Emperor Nero went so far as to suggest that the townsfolk might consider moving somewhere safer, but life was sweet amid the rich, volcanic soils on the bay and by the time Vesuvius began to blow it was too late. At least the unfortunate citizens left us an incomparable snapshot of their lives. Even if you are better off seeing it in London than in Pompeii.