Italy unveiled the restored crown jewel of the ancient city of Pompeii on Friday, showing off a rare success story.
The country raced to shore up the site, which had been marred by such mismanagement and neglect that it risked losing EU funding and its UNESCO World Heritage site listing.
Culture Minister Dario Franceschini cut the ribbon to open the restored Villa of Mysteries, a spectacular estate on the outskirts of Pompeii’s city center that features some of the best-preserved frescoes of the site.
Franceschini said that while problems still remain at Pompeii, Italy was on schedule to meet a European Union deadline to spend 105 million euros (US$111 million) in EU funds by the end of the year for maintenance and restoration projects.
While only three projects have been completed, 13 are underway and some 65 million euros has been awarded in contracts, officials said. In addition, 85 people have been hired to work on the site and visitor numbers last year were 200,000 more than in 2013.
“We know well that the world looks with great attention at everything that happens at Pompeii,” Franceschini said as he stood before a fresco of Dionysius and Aphrodite in the villa’s main salon. “Today, Italy is proud to say to the world that we have turned a page.”
Pompeii, a busy commercial city overlooking the Mediterranean, was destroyed in A.D. 79 by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius that killed thousands of people and buried the city in 20 feet (six meters) of volcanic ash. But the ash also helped preserve Pompeii’s treasures, providing precious information about life in the ancient world.
The first excavations began in the 18th century, but even today only two-thirds of the site’s 60 hectares (150 acres) have been uncovered.
In recent years, Pompeii has been bedeviled by neglect and mismanagement characteristic of Italy’s underdeveloped south, as well as brushes with the corruption that has infected some other important public works in Italy, including its Expo 2015 World’s Fair in Milan and the Moses water barrier project in Venice.
Hit by heavy rains, some of Pompeii’s walls have literally crumbled.
The 2010 collapse of the Villa of Gladiators, and further collapses at Pompeii the following year, caused such international alarm that the EU stepped forward with funding and Italy created a mini-administration to govern the restoration project and make sure it wasn’t infiltrated by the mafia.
Among other things, the EU project called for the site to be shored up and for a drainage system to be built. But Italy’s chronic bureaucratic delays prevented progress and the EU made clear it that Italy would lose the money if it didn’t use it by 31 December.
At the same time, UNESCO threatened to take Pompeii off its World Heritage list – a coveted designation that inspires many of the site’s more than 2 million visitors each year. A UNESCO inspection in November, however, acknowledged that progress had been made.
Franceschini quoted from the UNESCO report, which said any question about Pompeii’s place on the list had been “overcome” and that there had been a “profound change in the behavior” of its administration.
Franceschini said Italy was in negotiations with private firms to fund other restoration projects for Pompeii, evidence that private donors are increasingly having an important footprint in caring for Italy’s most iconic treasures, which have earned it 50 UNESCO World Heritage listings, more than any other country.
Shoemaker Tod’s is footing the 25 million-euro bill to restore the Colosseum, jeweler Bulgari is cleaning up Rome’s Spanish Steps and the government last year passed an initiative to give culture restoration donors a 65 percent tax credit.
“Private resources can be integrated with public ones, but cannot replace them,” Franceschini said. “The vastness of our patrimony will always require a huge commitment of public resources.”