The Destruction of Pompeii

by on January 9, 2012 at 6:50 am in Current Affairs, History, Political Science | Permalink

The Art Newspaper: A Unesco report has identified serious problems with the World Heritage Site, including structural damage to buildings, vandalism and a lack of qualified staff….The collapse of a column at Pompeii on 22 December raised further alarm. The column was in a pergola in the courtyard of the House of Loreio Tiburtino, whose adjacent rooms have very fine frescoes.

…The Pompeii crisis came to a head with the collapse of the Schola Armaturarum, known as the House of the Gladiators, in November 2010, along with three further collapses later in the month. This was after extremely heavy rain.

The problems at Pompeii are all too familiar in Italy:

Staffing at Pompeii remains a fundamental problem. The structure is “very rigid”, with “jobs ­being secure until retirement”, making it “virtually impossible to recruit new staff”. Although around 470 people are employed at Pompeii, it is “very short” of professional staff, there are “very few” maintenance workers and only 23 guards are on site at any one time.

The guards do not wear uniforms and fail to display their badges. The experts observed them “grouped together in threes or fours”, which meant there was a limited presence on the enormous site. Since 1987, the number of guards has been reduced by a quarter while visitor numbers have increased considerably.

And how about this for an Italian microcosm:

Management changes have resulted in further problems. In July 2008, the Italian government declared Pompeii to be in a “state of emergency”, putting it under special administration until July 2010 (two commissioners served during this period: Renato Profili and then Marcello Fiori). There have been four successive superintendents since September 2009: Mariarosaria Salvatore, Giuseppe Proietti, Jeannette Papadopoulos and Teresa Elena Cinquantaquattro.

1 RZ0 January 9, 2012 at 7:14 am

Clearly a management problem.

2 Crankyprofessor January 9, 2012 at 7:16 am

This story of woe is the reason I took my students last spring to Herculaneum /Ercolano…it’s much better managed. Pompeii is almost too big to administer well, but the Italian government does it very badly!

3 Slocum January 9, 2012 at 8:54 am

We, too, headed to Herculaneum instead of Pompeii for the same reasons. But Herculaneum is better managed in part because of the money & work of David Packard. Pompeii–being so much larger–clearly needs an even richer benefactor. Might it be a job for the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation?

4 von Igelfeld January 9, 2012 at 7:19 am

That lady seriously has 54 as her last name? What happened to the first 53?

5 jva January 9, 2012 at 1:34 pm

A quick google search confirms that it is true.

6 Andrew Smith January 9, 2012 at 9:48 am

I give walking tours in NYC and people are always shocked when I say the white columns outside of Delmonico’s downtown are generally said to be stolen from the Roman ruins at Pompeii. How, they ask, could such a thing have happened less than 200 years ago? And I tell them that it could happen today, given how large the site it, how few employees there are and how utterly indifferent they are.

I was there with my wife and watched a Frenchman try to steal a small piece of a column, about the size of a credit card. I started yelling at him and he started yelling back. We damn near got in a fist fight. It probably lasted close to five minutes and we were never disturbed.

I’d say the problem has less to do with “Italy” and more to do with “Southern Italy” and particularly “Naples.” If you haven’t gone south of Rome, on your own, then there is no way you can understand how different it is. A fantastic place to visit but, I’d imagine, an utter nightmare to inhabit.

7 kiwi dave January 9, 2012 at 10:26 am

Naples is a fascinating place. When you’re there, it’s impossible to believe that you’re in a G8 country with (despite all its problems) a per capita GDP close to 40k. Yet when you’re in Milan, you might as well be in Germany. Naples and Milan don’t just seem like different countries, they seem like different continents. No wonder the 150th anniversary of the Risorgimento (seemed to me) to be met with a lot of ambivalence.

8 Mike Hunter January 9, 2012 at 10:34 am

I lived and worked in Naples for 2 years while I was in the Navy. I had a great time and certainly wouldn’t say it’s “a nightmare to inhabit”. But don’t come to Naples and expect it to be something it’s not. Southern Italy is nothing like the United States, or it’s northern european neighbors. In practice there is a very libertarian atmosphere to that area, both due to government corruption/incompetance and in some ways local additude. In New York you’ll get a ticket just for spitting on the sidewalk, in Napoli unless you’re attacking someone or stealing people pretty much just leave you alone.

It was great for me because I have a libertarian streak, but people who chose to live there expecting the strict social order of the United States or Germany were miserable. I guess it all depends on what your looking for. I value personal freedom pretty highly and don’t mind putting up with a little chaos so I had a great time. I would happily go back to live there if I could find a decent job in the area. That said the government does need to be reformed if they’re not competent enough to protection Italy’s national treasures.

9 Rahul January 9, 2012 at 12:05 pm

The entrance fee to Pompeii is approx. €11. Would raising it improve matters? Is there any economic analysis of monument ticket prices? If people pay more than $50 for a quick walk over the Grand Canyon Skywalk, surely Pompeii can pull off charging higher fees?

10 Silas Barta January 9, 2012 at 1:14 pm

people are always shocked when I say the white columns outside of Delmonico’s downtown are generally said to be stolen from the Roman ruins at Pompeii

Probably because that’s a crock of sh**?

Stealing a credit-card sized piece of rock is one thing. Hauing an entire column off the site, and installing it in place while passing the building code and being structurally sound … no.

11 anon January 9, 2012 at 12:12 pm

Fiddling while Pompeii crumbles.

12 dearieme January 9, 2012 at 12:20 pm

Years ago I chatted to some Milanese in a cafe. They referred to southern Italians as “Arabs”. No praise was intended.

13 tina January 9, 2012 at 12:38 pm


14 Silas Barta January 9, 2012 at 12:54 pm

You know you’ve been playing Skyrim too long when you see that picture and think, “Search body for gold.”

15 JWatts January 9, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Correction: Firebolt from distance, to ensure it won’t get up and attack you, then search body for gold. 😉

16 Silas Barta January 9, 2012 at 2:27 pm


17 Todd January 9, 2012 at 4:53 pm

Meh, worse things have happened to happen to Pompei.

18 tkehler January 10, 2012 at 12:16 am

heh, +1

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20 Mike Hunter January 10, 2012 at 12:28 pm


21 Larry Rothfield January 10, 2012 at 1:31 am

There certainly are some management and corruption issues at Pompeii, but the problems there mirror problems at many world heritage sites — problems that stem from the incentive structure of the heritage tourist economy. Tourism to World Heritage sites generates revenues but those funds go disproportionately not to protecting the World Heritage site as a whole, but to attending assiduously to optimizing the experience of the small part of the site that tourists wish to see. The market for the spectacular view means that the less spectacular aspects of antiquity will be relatively underattended to. Sites that no one visits (because they have not been excavated yet, or because they are not visually interesting even if they are archaeologically significant) are even less cared for. The result: massive looting wherever there are saleable of antiquities to be chiseled off walls or ripped from the ground, and massive loss of heritage from untrammeled development, rising water tables, and so forth.

The problem is not corruption and bad management, primarily: it is inadequate national public resources to protect a global public good. I’d like to hear from Tyler, Alex, and other economists put their thinking caps on about how best to finance better heritage protection in countries (including the US, by the way) that cannot afford the cost. The EU is stepping up to help Pompeii, but this is an emergency fix — and where are similar funds to come from to pay for protecting the sites in Greece and Spain? In any case, the long-term question of financial sustainability remains. Tourists can be asked to pay more but may already be at the point of diminishing returns, and catering to tourists skews heritage protection. Governments are unlikely to pony up adequate funds out of general tax revenues. I have argued elsewhere that one possible revenue source might be created by introducing a Pigovian tax on antiquities sales, with the proceeds dedicated in Superfund fashion to programs aimed at securing sites from looters. That would not solve the conservation problems of building collapses or site contamination, but it would be of some help at least.

22 twine January 10, 2012 at 9:14 am

Heh. You lost me at “global public good.”

23 Bryan C January 10, 2012 at 11:44 am

“The problem is not corruption and bad management, primarily: it is inadequate national public resources to protect a global public good.”

I’m not sure how a tax would help.The problem isn’t that nations have “inadequate” resources to protect these sites — they simply don’t care very much about protecting the sites. The tourist industry is the only thing that keeps them from being a complete white elephant. If tourism dollars aren’t being spent the way that conservationists would prefer, maybe the best solution is for international and private organizations to simply hire private security to protect these valuable historical resources.

24 Rahul January 10, 2012 at 12:33 pm

Alternatively conservationists are the only ones who care about some of the more obscure sites. I just don’t see any strong motivation to pump money here especially given all the other crisis and demands the world is facing right now.

Making things self-sustaining through tourism and private-donations seems the best way forward. If tourists are showing narrow interests maybe the archaeological profession needs to be more active in expanding those interests.

25 Larry Rothfield January 10, 2012 at 12:48 pm

Twine: By “global public good” I meant that whether or not the Italian government or individual Italians care about preserving the information about the past that archaeological sites hold, people around the world do, yet there is no market mechanism enabling us to pay the price we would be willing to pay to protect these valuable nonrenewable resources. There is, on the other hand, a market for antiquities that creates enormous incentives to loot these resources. A single Mesopotamian figurine sold a few years ago, legally, for $57 million; the social cost of the increase in looting that kind of payday incentivized was not borne by the buyer or seller. The result is that while antiquities are being harvested on a massive scale by looters who ruin the sites they attack, antiquity is being destroyed forever.

As for the solution, Bryan: I’d love to see international and private organizations hire private security guards if that is the most efficient way to ensure site protection. But that begs the question of where the money to pay the guards is to come from. UNESCO set up a fund years ago, but no countries contributed to it! To be clear: I am not suggesting that Italy institute a tax, but that the US do so (with the hope that other nations would follow our lead). The tax proceeds would go into a fund administered by a panel of experts, to which international and private organizations — including NGOs in Italy or Iraq or wherever — could apply for support for whatever plans they cook up to efficiently secure their sites.

26 my informed opinion January 14, 2012 at 7:46 am

I’m sure this will shock all of you culture people but, let it go. Just make some kind of a realistic plan and stick to it. If it is quite certain, and it is, that you cannot protect it all, well, then, it is time to let go. I myself have become very ambivalent about these things. You cannot protect everything, although, much and more is under some kind of protection. Yes, by all means, document it all with “the best possible means”. But… …let it go.

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