Three years ago, a project was launched to conserve the ancient site of Pompeii. Walls had fallen beneath heavy rainfall; criminals had chiselled away sections of painted plaster and removed them from buildings; in 2010 the House of Gladiators simply collapsed into a pile of rubble. The latest signs suggest that progress has been made, but not without significant setbacks.
If the European Commission was looking for an immediate return on its €78m investment (the project is worth €105m in total), then recent unveilings ought to have sounded the right note.
In March, the ribbon was cut on the newly restored Villa of the Mysteries and its splendid Bacchus-inspired wall paintings. An exhibition of previously unseen victims of the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius has also opened in Pompeii, with extended visiting hours for the summer months (until 2 November).
Admittedly the exhibition could be better. It is hard enough to view ancient body casts as the dead preserved rather than as sculptures inspired by some remote, mythical occurrence. The fact that these ones are artfully displayed in a wooden pyramid inside a former amphitheatre only compounds the problem; the arrangement does nothing to bring out their humanity.
Still, without flourishes like these, how easy would it be to show that progress is being made? Painstaking attempts to seal masonry – one of the focuses of this year’s project – can seem like a drop in the ocean.
It is because UNESCO recognised that improvements have been made that it has decided to reverse its threat to add Pompeii to its list of endangered sites – and recommended that the deadline for the project be extended by at least a year.
While it was initially understood that any unspent funds were to be withdrawn on 31 December 2015, the restoration team is going ahead with plans beyond the year-end. Sources recently told an Italian newspaper that funds not used would be available again from 2016. Let’s hope they are right.
If Pompeii is to rise again – or rather, be preserved for the future without enduring further damage – more time is certainly needed. As well as repairs to stonework and improvements in security, we must expect a dramatic overhaul of the drainage system to protect the site from further flooding. As I understand it, there is still work to be done here.
Many of the conservation projects outlined for this year remain unfinished, and it feels too optimistic to expect that they will be completed to schedule. None of this is helped by the fact there are fewer staff on the job than initially anticipated. Recent strikes by visitor staff do even less to instill confidence in the wider public.
If the sprawling site of Pompeii demands one thing, it is commitment to the future as well as the past.