Restored Pompeii villa designed to impress

Nicole Winfield
Associated Press

Pompeii, Italy — Italy unveiled the restored crown jewel of the ancient city of Pompeii on Friday, showing off a rare success story as it races to shore up the site that has been marred by such mismanagement and neglect that it risked losing EU funding and being delisted as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

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 while problems still remain at Pompeii, Italy had “turned a page” and was on schedule to meet a European Union deadline to spend 105 million euros ($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 have 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. “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 of volcanic ash. But the ash also helped preserve Pompeii’s treasures, providing precious information about what life was like in the ancient world.

The first excavations began in the 18th century, but even today only two-thirds of the site’s 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 Dec. 31.

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.”

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.