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A photo of Pompeii ruins with Mount Vesuvius in the background.

Mount Vesuvius looms over the ruins of Pompeii, destroyed by a volcanic eruption in A.D. 79.

PHOTOGRAPH BY CIRO DE LUCA, REUTERS

Dan Vergano

National Geographic

Published April 18, 2014

A ruin facing ruin, Pompeii looks to one of its doomed sister cities in its latest rescue effort. (Related: "The Real Pompeii.")

Italian officials this month unveiled details of the Great Pompeii Project, a 105-million-euro ($145 million U.S.) project to restore the famed Roman town, pillaged by treasure hunters, overrun by tourists, and wracked by the elements in the four centuries since its rediscovery. (See "Doomsday Pompeii.")

A highly innovative, "maintenance-based" approach to restoration will guide the project, said Massimo Osanna, the newly appointed superintendent of the site, in a statement.

Instead of piecemeal patches to individual buildings or attractions, the effort will take its cues from the conservation of the nearby buried Roman town of Herculaneum. The hope is that by putting comprehensive maintenance concerns first, more of the site can be opened to visitors.

A photo of tourists jumping on rocks in the Pompeii ruins.
In 2013 Pompeii was visited by almost 2.5 million tourists, adding to the site's deterioration.
PHOTOGRAPH BY GIORGIO COSULICH, GETTY

Over the past decade, the Herculaneum Conservation Project has been credited with saving that nearby ruin. The 20-million-euro ($27.7 million U.S.) effort was a partnership with the Packard Humanities Institute of Los Altos, California, and the British School at Rome.

At Pompeii, the one-year effort will focus on sealing the masonry of the town's homes, walls, and embankments (which are vulnerable to rainfall) and establishing better security and adding video cameras at the site, located in the organized-crime-ridden part of southern Italy.

"This looks like a very encouraging initiative. But we mustn't expect quick fixes. Conservation of ruins on the scale of Pompeii is hugely expensive," says classicist Mary Beard, author of The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found. "The work at Herculaneum is certainly a model, but it is a much smaller site."

A photo of a collapsed wall at the Pompeii ruins.
The Temple of Venus and the wall of a tomb were found damaged on March 2, possibly due to heavy rain.
PHOTOGRAPH BY MARIO LAPORTA, AFP/GETTY

Ruined Ruin

Blanketed with ash by the A.D. 79 eruption of Italy's Mount Vesuvius, Pompeii's rediscovery has seen almost three-quarters of its homes, temples, and streets exposed to the elements, with the removal of the deadly, preserving ash that once roughly buried the town.

Once home to perhaps 12,000 people, Pompeii is now one of the world's great tourist sites, seeing more than two million visitors a year. Tourists, thieves, and time have made the 163-acre (66-hectare) ruin more of a ruin, with three walls suffering collapses and vandals stealing a fresco in March.

Herculaneum was a nearby town buried even deeper by Vesuvius, under about 82 feet (25 meters) of ash, and is a smaller tourist site. Roofing and drains made much of the difference in its restoration. And now it is Pompeii's turn.

A photo of construction workers at the Pompeii ruins.
The latest effort to restore Pompeii will take one year and cost 105 million euros ($145 million U.S.).
PHOTOGRAPH BY CIRO DE LUCA, REUTERS/CORBIS

"The collaboration of archaeologists, conservationists, engineers, [and others] at Herculaneum, organized as a comprehensive team, is absolutely the way forward for Pompeii, and likely many other sites," says classicist Virginia Campbell of the United Kingdom's University of Leeds.

"Yet, the sites are very different in terms of levels of preservation, some of the problems encountered, and of course the vast difference in area," Campbell says. "So while the basic methodology absolutely should be adopted for Pompeii, the results will likely be less noticeable and consume a lot more time and money."

Follow Dan Vergano on Twitter.

8 comments
JANA MAY
JANA MAY

It makes me feel sick to think of losing this place, or any part of it. I hope those who are restoring it manage to do it right. A fresco stolen? That's a tragedy that shouldn't have happened.

Wayne T.
Wayne T.

Just make the tourist visiting this place pay, like you pay while visiting most  tourist attractions, a Roman burger, Roman fries, and Roman drink should cost the fortune it costst in most tourist atractions, use this money to maintain the infrastructure. 

Sarah Mathews
Sarah Mathews

I would love to go visit this place, but the fact that 2.5 million people wander around make me worried!  I hope they can protect these beautiful bits of architecture and history; it needs to be preserved for future generations!

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

I visited Pompeii in 1978 - and we had the place pretty much to ourselves. Something has gone wrong if 2.5 million people are allowed in every year. 


However, the main factor adversely affecting Pompeii is exposure to the elements. Perhaps the answer is to roof the entire site. Such a roof would be huge and costly of course, but it wouldn't cost the sum being talked of here and the cost would be a one-off payment. Once erected the roof would protect the site for at least several more generations.

Andrew Booth
Andrew Booth

@Sarah Mathews The vast numbers of people can only have a very detrimental affect Sarah. Cash on the gate seems to be the only concern. 

  I remember walking in and around villas which had all their walls decorated with painted frescoes which weren't protected in any way. Several million fingers on the paint will wreak havoc! Many of the walks in the villas' gardens were decorated with little busts and statues on columns. Are they still there? 

   One bakery still had loaves of bread on the shelves! The loaves looked and felt like rock but they were 1900 yeas old! Are they still on the shelves I wonder or have they disappeared?  

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