Having been buried under ash from Mount Vesuvius almost 2000 years ago, the Roman city of Pompeii managed to rise again – becoming one of the world’s most famous historic sites and tourist attractions.
But over the past decade – under the weight of 2.3 million trampling visitors’ feet every year – it has fallen into woeful neglect and is in urgent need of restoration.
This was amply demonstrated in 2010 with the collapse of the site’s House of the Gladiators.
“We’re stunned when walls fall down,” said Andrea Carandini, a world-renowned archaeologist, at the time. “But these are ruins not systematically maintained, so the miracle is that so few of them collapse.”
Yet in the fight to save Pompeii, another enemy has emerged in the guise of the Naples mafia, and now some observers fear it might take another miracle to protect Pompeii, ancient Rome’s version of Sin City, from the clutches of the mob.
Last week, investigators announced a probe into suspected Mafia involvement in Pompeii restoration works undertaken as part of a €105m (£90m) project funded by the Italian Government and the European Union following decades of “neglect and mismanagement” at the site.
The Unesco World Heritage site certainly needs careful restoration – and lots of money to fund it. The €105m was intended to be spent on a high-tech, underground drainage system, complete with scanners to detect problem areas (many of the recent collapses have been blamed on heavy rainfall) as well as the restoration and re-opening of key parts of the site. In 1956 there were 64 individual structures in Pompeii open to the public; today no more than five are accessible at any one time.
The two-year project began in February this year, six months behind schedule. It seemed like the end of the story of neglect, or at least the beginning of new era. But even as the restorers were readying their tools, police in Campania, the southern region in which Pompeii is situated, were arresting the head of one restoration contractor previously involved at the site and probing the activities of four senior officials, whom they suspect of paying inflated prices for restoration work.
The bill for one contract, originally priced at less than €500,000, rose mysteriously to €5m. With cost inflation of that magnitude, even the EU largesse wouldn’t go very far.
The person placed under house arrest on 5 February was Annamaria Caccavo, the owner of a restoration company that was awarded contracts worth €8m for work on Pompeii’s Teatro Grande. Engineers employed for the job had already been blacklisted from their profession, and materials of suspect quality were used in the building’s reconstruction.
Significantly, one of the officials placed under investigation for suspected abuse of office was Marcello Fiori, the special commissioner appointed by Rome to oversee the “state of emergency” repair work at Pompeii from August 2008 to July 2010.
But the buck does not stop with a few managers accused of lining their own pockets. Something more worrying lurks in the shadows – the Camorra mafia. Just 15 miles away lies the southern port of Naples, the crime group’s home base, where it has a hand in everything from drugs to construction projects and rubbish collection .
Over the past year, tit-for-tat murders have raised fears that one of Italy’s bloodiest mob turf wars – played out in the crime-plagued southern port in 2004 and 2005 during which more than 60 people were killed – is flaring up again.
Ministers are putting a brave face on things. Last month in an interview with the in-house publication of the national police force, the Interior Minister, Anna Maria Cancellieri, said: “We have had excellent results by implementing protocols that reinforce security and development of important projects. We’ve done it for Expo, for the site of Pompeii and for the post-earthquake reconstruction of Emilia Romagna.”
But as recently as last Thursday, reports suggested that Expo – the World’s Fair due in Milan in 2015 – was months behind schedule and continuing to bleed vast amounts of public money. And question marks remain over how to ensure that public funds earmarked for Pompeii and its treasures – some of which are currently on display at the British Museum – really go where they are intended.
Underlining these concerns, a small army of carabinieri officers, finance police and officials led by Mariolina Goglia, the head of the Naples prefecture anti-mafia unit, marched into the Pompeii site last week in the hunt for evidence of Camorra activity.
The investigators checked documents, restoration activities and the identity of all the workers present for signs of organised crime. The results of the checks have not been announced and Ms Goglia did not respond to requests for an interview. Some observers noted that dispatching uniformed carabinieri appeared more like a PR stunt that meaningful sleuthing.
Campaigners in Naples and the surrounding region are in little doubt, however, what investigators will find if they scratch the surface.
“With such large amounts of money on offer, there’s no question that the Camorra, as the local mafia organisation, will be seeking to profit,” said Fabio Giuliani, the Naples spokesman for the anti-mafia group Libera.
But Shirin Wheeler, the spokeswoman for the EU Regional Affairs Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who is leading the European Commission’s efforts to save Pompeii, told The Independent she was confident the mob would not get its hands on the money.
“We think there is very strong, anti-mafia infiltration system,” she said. “We’ve concentrated on this aspect of the project because the area is unfortunately, infected by the Camorra. But our system will be effective because a special prefect, Fernando Guido, sent from Rome – not hired locally – will be there from start to finish to ensure security and in particular public procurement.”
But wasn’t the former special commissioner Marcello Fiori – who is now under investigation – also appointed by Rome?
“The new prefect, Mr Guido, will be closely watched by three Italian ministries – Culture, Interior and Regional Development – and the EC, all of which have invested their credibility in the project,” she said.
Some observers say that concerns over corruption and organised crime should not distract attention from the Italian state’s failure to look after its peerless cultural patrimony. Antonio Irlando, the president of the Observatory for Cultural Heritage campaign group, is among them.
“Is the Camorra the cause of all the problems and collapses at Pompeii? Some of them, maybe. But certainly not all of them,” he said. He added that “loving daily maintenance” – which the authorities had conspicuously failed to provide for many decades – was the solution.
Similar neglect can be seen at the Colosseum in Rome, where chunks of the building have fallen off in recent years, and the Domus Aurea, Nero’s fabled Golden Palace, a large area of which collapsed in 2010.
There is general agreement that the generous EU grant and the money it coaxed out of Italian coffers will – if applied properly – help to save Pompeii for future generations. The EU’s Mr Hahn has said he hopes the project will be adopted as a model for saving other important sites.
“Pompeii is a site which is important to the world,” he said. “The work we have started there is ground breaking both in terms of restoration technology and in crime prevention.”