Is Pompeii in a state of emergency -- again?
The Italian government apparently wants to renovate Pompeii and make it more user-friendly. The response to this announcement in the British press has been largely favourable – and no doubt struck a chord with many visitors.
It is, after all, terribly irritating to have to enter the site through battalions of private enterprise guides who swoop upon you with the standard: “You English? You want guide?”. It is also irritating to find many of the best houses in the town closed. Currently, for example, the famous House of the Vettii is closed for restoration.
That said, the new Berlusconi idea that all can be solved by a new “Pompeii commissioner” isn’t as attractive as many UK newspapers have implied. It all depends what you want Pompeii to be and what you think the problems are.
There isn’t actually much the matter with the current administration of Pompeii (apart from lack of funds) – and a very great deal to be said in its favour.
OK, the site is gradually crumbing (of course it is, it’s 2000 year old construction – and a lot of it has been exposed to the elements and periodic earth tremors for 200 years). Much of what you would like to see is off-limits, for want of custodians to keep an eye on it and on you. And there have been some nasty recent incidents of theft. But look behind the headlines and the Berlusconi “solution” doesn’t seem so attractive.
For a start, the new Minister of Culture, Sandro Bondi, who is proposing the new scheme is a well-known “Forza Italia” supporter, a man so keen on his master that he has written poems in praise of Berlusconi. These guys are not the relatively harmless right wing now represented by the British Tory party (or New Labour, for that matter). If you want a taste of this Italian government, just remember that the newly elected mayor of Rome (replacing Francesco Rutelli who had also been Minister of Culture) was greeted by shouts of “Duce , Duce” and is a self-confessed fan of Mussolini.
And the man tipped for the job as “commissioner’ for Pompeii, Mario Mori, is another Berlusconi loyalist, the head of the Italian Security Services. The best you can expect from this man is a Thatcherite campaign of corporate (and highly paying) parties on the site – BP dinners in the House of the Menander? The worst is beyond contemplating.
This is all bonkers. Pompeii is in difficulties, it is starved of money and too much of it is closed. But many of the criticisms made by Berlusconi’s government (as they are reported) are ill-informed. There may be an under-provision of loos, but it is not the case that there is no restaurant. There is also a good bookshop stocked with plenty of maps and guides to the site. A new system of on-line booking allows any visitor with internet access to book an appointment to see a series of places usually closed (though occasionally the man with the key does forget to turn up). It is still an absolutely wonderful place to visit. And that’s partly because it is done without touristic tricks. What you see is what you get and that is more than good enough.
Besides, in my experience, the staff at Pompeii are wonderfully co-operative, helpful and “can-do” beyond all the odds. You get a good sense of the administrative attitude of any archaeological site when you want to get permission to research it. All kinds of authorities simply dig in their heels or are generally unhelpful (I was once told that I could only be allowed into the circle at Stonehenge at dawn – thus demanding an overnight stay etc etc….). At Pompeii, over the last decade, both I and my students, have been helped to see everything we have ever wanted, with speed and good humour. Unlike some other guardians of world treasures, the Pompeian authories welcome foreign scholars, and are exemplary facilitators.
The current boss of Pompeii, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, is an excellent scholar who has done a great job and written intelligently about the management of the site. He needs more cash to go on doing it – not a commissioner, fresh from the security services.