Pompeii’s stolen frescoes are the latest case in a long history of neglect

The stolen fresco. EPA/Ufficio Stampa Scavi Pompei

It was reported recently that a fresco has been stolen from Pompeii. Its absence must have been hard to notice. Flooding had severely damaged the already disintegrating frescoes in Pompeii, so one might think that the empty space could be easily overlooked.

But officials noticed that one small piece featuring the goddess Artemis, measuring less than fifteen centimetres square, was stolen from Neptune’s domus, an abandoned building of the heritage site that was not accessible to visitors.

This is the second theft in three months. The first happened in January, when another small fresco, this time a floral decoration on a yellow background, disappeared from the superintendence’s restoration laboratory. And despite the ensuing efforts of the public agencies involved, from the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities to the local police, Pompeii has once again been vandalised.

Pompeii has always had an almost mythical aura for artists and writers alike. Seducing and terrifying, dark and lively, its double nature of eternalised calamity and the heritage of a pagan, sensual past made it one of the Mediterranean tourist attractions most beloved by the Romantics. With erotic frescoes set in a tragic scenery, Eros and Thanatos have left their mark on this ancient city that, along with Ercolano, was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79 A.D.

Pompeii’s latest incarnation.

The film industry has also found Pompeii’s fascinating history exploitable. Starting with the first silent film in 1900, adapted from Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s book, the story of Pompeii made it the archetype of the just destruction of a wicked, corrupt society. The latest film inspired by the catastrophe is by Paul W.S. Anderson. His Pompeii is to be released in the UK on 2 May. British novelists, American directors, art thieves … nobody seems immune from Pompeii’s allure. Its beauty, however, has failed to impress the Italian government for the last four years.

Pompeii’s frescoes have been the Achilles’ heel of the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities since 2010, when a flood almost destroyed the Gladiators’ domus. The poor measures of preservation and restoration taken at the time by right-wing then minister Sandro Bondi received strong criticism from many members of the opposition (which, ironically included the current minister Franceschini).

More and more damages were reported over the years. These were partly due to natural causes and partly due to the ineffectual preservation measures implemented by the Ministry. Because of this, millions of euros of national and European funding have been allocated both to the ordinary and extraordinary maintenance of the enormous archaeological area. In addition, the Great Pompeii Project, which includes improving the CCTV system and the restoring the ancient buildings, was launched in 2012.

Fresh collapses. EPA/Ciro Fusco

But the results of all this have been disappointing. Pompeii’s erosion has been accepted as a matter of fact, and the site risked ending up in UNESCO’s black list of endangered World Heritage sites. And despite the alarming news about the state of the artworks, the number of foreign tourists that visit the town has been growing over the last four years, a sign that the charm that attracted wealthy youngsters on their Grand Tour two centuries ago is still very much alive.

Crumbling, neglected, vandalised, Pompeii stands not only for the failures of Italian cultural policies to preserve the national heritage, but also for the general lack of interest of the Italian ruling class for culture. Luca Zaia, the governor of Veneto, said in 2010, “it is a shame to waste 250 million euros for those four stones in Pompeii”.

His words are not reassuring. Apparently the UNESCO world heritage site represents nothing but a few worthless “stones” to those who are in charge of preserving and protecting it.

Franceschini has taken some emergency measures in order to face the crisis and improve the security conditions of the frescoes. This is all very well, but I’m not sure whether a state of degradation that has progressively worsened for years due to political inattention can still be defined as an “emergency”.

But there is still room for hope. One of the frescoes – the floral decoration – was returned, shipped from a post office in Florence. What is the reason behind this action? Is it fear, guilt or a romantic concern with the preservation of our artistic heritage? We do not know, but the remorseful thief is not the only embarrassed and repentant culprit in this situation.

Just like the anonymous return of the missing fresco, the “emergency meeting” the minister of Cultural Heritage and Activities summoned is something that stinks of shame and guilt, rather than representing the well-thought out, bona fide initiative the Italian government wants to project.