Destroyed once, nearly again, Pompeii is enjoying a “rebirth”
Can a dead city be reborn twice? In the case of Pompeii, the answer is shaping up to be yes.
The ancient Roman city, a bustling, lively place of artisan workshops, stores, eateries and residences near the Bay of Naples, experienced its “first” death when, in 79 A.D., Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried much of the population under volcanic stone and ash. It gained a new life of sorts when, in the 18th century, excavations began, a work in progress leaving roughly half of Pompeii still to be revealed.
But the last few decades saw the sprawling archaeological site, and one of Italy’s its most popular tourist attractions – Pompeii drew more than 3.2 million visitors in 2016 – risk a modern-day death.
Parts of walls that had survived for nearly 2,000 years crumbled. One especially dismaying collapse, in 2010, involved the House of Gladiators, so-called because that’s where they trained and deposited their weapons. In one of a pair of collapses in 2014, the wall of a tomb in a necropolis fell down. And in winter 2017, part of a wall in an ancient house — luckily for posterity not one of Pompeii’s spectacularly frescoed ones — literally fell apart.
Poor drainage has been partially blamed. Other fingers pointed to Italy’s chronically skimpy national budget to care for its extraordinarily rich patrimony of monuments, art and archaeological ruins. Other human factors played a role in the damage. In such a vast site, Pompeii’s custodians just aren’t numerous enough to make sure tourists don’t chisel away ancient mosaic tiles, flake off fresco fragments or deface the ruins with modern graffiti. It didn’t help that some unions of the custodians, irked by management’s efforts to make them more productive, not infrequently went on strike.
A concerned alarmed European Union decided to fund an ambitious effort, the Great Pompeii Project, to both preserve the site while keeping the attraction open to visitors. But at one point, the EU had to sound a warning that Italy would lose the funds unless it didn’t promptly and properly used the money. About the same time, UNESCO, the U.N. culture agency, warned it might remove Pompeii’s designation as a World Heritage site.
But, happily, Pompeii is experiencing the start of a much needed renaissance..
To great fanfare, a number of “domus” sites, Latin for residence, were put back on the tourist itinerary, some after decades of closure. Archaeologists and restoration experts completed work on them, allowing parts of the site that were too dangerous to permit visitors to be accessible again.
Among the spectacular ”new” attractions is the restored Villa of Mysteries, full of well-preserved frescoes on Pompeii’s outskirts.
Noteworthy among re-opened sites is the Julia Felix domus, thought to have been a luxury hotel, with a thermal bath complex. (An inscription on one of its doors reads “At Julia Felix’s place, an elegant bath, worthy of Venus” can be rented by ”proper persons.”)
Also now able to be visited is the House of Venus on a Seashell. The name of this “domus’ derives from a fresco depicting the goddess on a red shell. The domus had been damaged by World War II bombing.
Another welcome opening is House of the Orchard, with frescoes evoking a garden.
One more novelty for tourists who haven’t been to Pompeii in years is the Fullonica of Stephanus, where the locals brought fabrics to be washed or dyed, a kind of forerunners to present-day cleaners.
And right before Christmas 2016, Pompeii lovers had a present: the partial re-opening of the House of the Vettii, which had belonged to two well-off merchants.
Pompeii still yields fascinating reminders of its ancient inhabitants. Late last year, news came that European archaeologists had found four skeletons, gold coins and a delicate, gold-leaf-foil pendant in the back of a shop that apparently had escaped the notice of someone ransacking the shop after the eruption, on the outskirts of Pompeii.
Pompeii’s management doesn’t want to repeat the problems of having too many sites to guard while the attraction is over. So authorities have decided to open up only some of the “new’’ domuses at a time, meaning what you see will depend on when you come.
But that can work. Pompeii’s vastness can almost overwhelm, and be too much of a good thing to absorb in one visit, especially when traipsing under a hot summer’s sun.
Pompeii also now offers temporary exhibits or gives rare opportunities to see parts of the site are rarely open to the public. For example, to mark Valentine’s Day, visitors could enter the ‘’House of the Chaste Lovers’’ during a five-day weekend only. The house takes its name from a modest kiss exchanged by two lovers in a fresco decorating the dining area.
In one popular but temporary exhibit, the remains of carbonized bread, grapes and figs that Pompeii’s doomed inhabitants never had a chance to eat were put on display.
Pompeii’s Antiquarium, a 19th-century structure that was damaged in the 1943 bombing, then repaired, only to be closed again after the 1980 Naples-area earthquake, was inaugurated in April 2016, offering visitors a space to learn about the ancient city’s history, even in the centuries before its destruction by Vesuvius.
The once-buried city still amazes visitors today with its ever-unfolding revelations and surprise offerings.