Pompeii survives bumpy restoration saga

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Visitors look at a new exhibition of the victims of the eruption that destroyed Pompeii. Photo: Mario Laporta/AFP
11:44 CEST+02:00
The ancient city of Pompeii is rising from the ashes again in a happy end to a long, sometimes gruelling restoration saga - despite the worst that Italy's mafia and bureaucracy could throw at it.

The Roman city, buried during a volcanic eruption in the first century, is undergoing a multi-million euro restoration which will see the preserved bodies of victims go on display at the site.

But the transformation of one of the world's most treasured archaeological sites has been a challenge both for archaeologists and for Italy itself.

Archaeologist Massimo Osanna was sent in to turn around the project two years ago amid reports of degradation of the ruins, of theft and even of looting by the Neapolitan mafia, the Camorra.

He now has a €130 million ($143 million) budget, most of it from the European Union.

In March, Unesco inspectors -- who had threatened to take Pompeii off the list of World Heritage sites -- acknowledged that there had been considerable improvements to the site's conservation.

"This is a really exciting time for Pompeii," Osanna told AFP. "Thousands of people are working together. We currently have 35 construction areas on the site."

Pompeii's transformation includes a new special exhibition of around 20 victims of the eruption, preserved in plaster with their expressions and positions fixed at the very moment they met their fate, carbonised by the intense heat of a 300-degrees Celsius gas cloud.

Displayed for the first time, the bodies of men, women and children from Pompeii and neighbouring Herculaneum - which was also engulfed by the eruption - are laid out in a wooden pyramid in the middle of an ancient amphitheatre.

A series of nighttime visits until September 27 give visitors the chance to explore the site by moonlight, with guided tours, video installations and wine tastings based on an ancient Roman recipe.

"We have followed UNESCO's advice to extend projects beyond the initial deadline of 2015," said Osanna. "We have the resources and we will carry on working."

'A new era'

With 2.7 million tourists visiting the ancient city last year, the ruins are the second most visited attraction in Italy after the Colosseum in Rome, and are seen as a symbol of the challenges in preserving Italy's cultural heritage.

"This is a new era for Pompeii and our efforts are bearing fruit," said Italy's Minister for Culture Dario Franceschini, as he inaugurated the Palestra Grande (Large Gymnasium) on Tuesday, after seven years of restoration work.

The enormous space surrounded by columns is where young Romans played sports until Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79AD.

Restorer Paola Zoroaster said, "We are all specialised in different areas, some in stone work, plaster, frescos and mosaics.

"The conditions here on the site are good because, before we started our work, the area had already been inspected and repaired to ensure that it was secure," she said as she finished working on a site just metres away from the Agora, the spectacular main square.

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Osanna said the region's economic problems -- it is one of Italy's poorest -- makes Pompeii a particularly complex site to work on, and he hopes the bid to improve conservation efforts will be echoed by investment in the surrounding region.

"We want a fast train which goes directly to Pompeii's archaeological site. We want the area surrounding the site to be just as beautiful as the site itself," he said.

His optimism, however, comes against a backdrop of a series of shutdowns at the site which left angry tourists locked out and seriously embarrassed the government.

Some 120 workers sparked controversy two weeks ago when they went on strike over overtime pay and closed the doors.

"Our actions have been twisted" by the press, said one of the workers who did not want to give his name.

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