The Restorers of Pompeii Have More Money Than Time

Almost $100 million of EU money is at risk if not disbursed by December.

In the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, workers in hard hats bustle along the Via dell’Abbondanza, setting up fences marked “Work in Progress.” In a basilica that opened this summer, patches of new plaster stand out on once-crumbling steps. In the amphitheater where gladiators fought, a temporary wooden pyramid houses the remains of victims of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.

Though Pompeii is timeless, the workers are in a hurry – to spend money. In the next 12 weeks, they have to burn through almost $100 million – about five times what they've spent in the past three years – or risk losing it. 

“This got off to a slow start, and now it’s as if there’s an emergency,” says Antonio Irlando, president of an association set up to safeguard Italy’s heritage, as he tours the city, occasionally stopping to pick at weeds growing through cracks in the walls of the houses. 

The struggle to preserve the ancient Roman city offers lessons for Prime Minister Matteo Renzi as he prepares what the government calls a “new Marshall Plan” of more than 70 billion euros  ($79 billion) for the depressed south, which has long lagged behind the northern provinces in Europe’s fourth-largest economy.

Problem is, in Italy public money is rarely spent efficiently. The European Commission says it allocated 28 billion euros in economic development funding to the country from 2007 to 2013, behind only Poland and Spain. But the Commission paid out just 76 percent of Italy’s funds – fourth-worst among the 28 EU states – as projects either were never drawn up or failed to make it by the mandated deadline.

Take Pompeii. In 2012, the Commission and the Italian government earmarked 105 million euros for restoration at the site after a series of headline-grabbing problems such as the collapse of the Domus Gladiatoria, a gymnasium for gladiators. 

Debris following the collapse of Pompeii’s Domus Gladiatoria.
Debris following the collapse of Pompeii’s Domus Gladiatoria.
Photographer: Roberto Salomone/AFP via Getty Images

But the money must be spent by this December, and as of now only 17 million euros has been paid out. The state agency in charge of the work estimates that it will be lucky to get to 50 million euros by yearend.

The highest-profile achievement so far has been the restoration of plaster casts of victims buried under ash and pumice by the eruption, and the start of a scientific study to examine the remains for clues on the lives of the victims. An exhibition of 20 of the casts includes a woman lying on her back with her arms raised, a child apparently sitting upright on her stomach. 

Eruption victims at Orto Dei Fuggiaschi in Pompeii.
Eruption victims at Orto Dei Fuggiaschi in Pompeii.
Photographer: Carlo Hermann/AFP via Getty Images

“We’re trying to make up for lost time,” said Giovanni Nistri, who heads the Great Pompeii Project, a state agency set up to make sure the funds are spent quickly and cleanly. “The goal is to secure the most vulnerable buildings and draw up a road map for future work.’’

Art Theft

A former head of the art theft unit of the Carabinieri paramilitary police, Nistri said that when he arrived in January 2014 – almost two years after the money had been pledged – work had begun at only five houses, and only 700,000 euros had been spent. 

He is enforcing what he calls “almost experimental” rules to both accelerate and control the spending: Bidders for projects are screened for links to the Mafia and other criminal groups, winners must open a bank account dedicated to the contract and make all payments by bank transfer – no cash allowed – and video cameras monitor project sites to prevent subcontracting of work to tainted firms.

While Pompeii is something of a special case due to its status as a U.N.-designated World Heritage Site, the regulations could serve as a model for projects across southern Italy, said Marcello Messori, director of the School of European Political Economy at LUISS university in Rome. 

“Pompeii has succeeded in implementing very radical solutions partly because of the attention and pressure it’s under,” Messori said. “It’s gone in the right direction and can be replicated, though that won’t be easy because other parts of the south aren’t under the same pressure.”

Mafia Contractors

One sign of the success of the new regulations is the willingness of companies outside of the Naples region to bid on contracts at Pompeii – a sign that they feel they’ll get a fair chance at winning in a region where Mafia-linked companies often prevail in public tenders. 

Pompeii may win at least a partial postponement of the deadline. A European Commission spokesman said spending on some Pompeii projects would likely continue past December. Nistri said he expects to be granted an extra 12 or 18 months.

The ‘Street of Fortune’ in Pompeii.
The ‘Street of Fortune’ in Pompeii.
Photographer: De Agostini Picture Library via Getty Images

Among the most ambitious initiatives is a three-year project to safeguard a grassy area of shops, houses and other buildings that hasn’t ever been dug up by archaeologists. After heavy rainfalls, the waterlogged terrain threatens the buildings. 

Other projects include mapping the condition and stability of structures across the city, shoring up the most fragile walls, boosting security with CCTV cameras and improving access for the disabled – a total of 31 sites.

“We’re talking about 44 hectares of ruins,” Nistri said. “What’s important is to know just where the problems are, and then we can intervene.”

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