Lorenza Bacino explores an ancient city being restored by modern technology, taking a tour through Pompeii in the company of Professor Massimo Osanna, director of the Pompeii Project, and meeting some former inhabitants with forensic archaeologist Estelle Lazer.

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Two of the victims found in the garden of Fugitives. About 2.5m to 2.8m of pumice stone had already fallen by the time they tried in vain to make their escape, heading towards the nearby Nocera gate.

Walking along the cobbled roads, it is easy to imagine Pompeii as a thriving, bustling town in the moments before it was destroyed by the cataclysmic volcanic eruption of AD 79. At the time, it was recovering from the shock of a massive earthquake 17 years previously, and most of the town was undergoing major rebuilding work. Much the same is happening today, as Pompeii slowly recovers from another earthquake, this time the one in 1980, with a massive programme of work to restore and preserve the ancient buildings after decades of neglect. Few understand better than Professor Massimo Osanna, Direttore generale Soprintendenza Pompei, the inherent problems associated with maintaining a major archaeological site, especially one that is so large (Pompeii covers 67ha, 49 of them excavated), open to the elements, and visited by ever-increasing numbers of tourists. His challenge is to reverse the decline following the Irpinia earthquake 36 years ago, which brought down several structures and rendered many more unsafe for public access. A lack of funds in the years that followed led to further deterioration, and eventually UNESCO threatened to withdraw the site’s World Heritage status.

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Scans of body casts are providing the first scientific analysis of the people fatally caught in the final days of Pompeii.

‘Pompeii will always be in a state of restoration,’ insists Osanna. ‘My two priorities are to use the latest technology to deepen our knowledge of the site; and to record in a systematic and logical way both what we have already, and what we find in the future. This is what has been lacking so far, and what I want to remedy.’

The latest achievements of the Great Pompeii Project, a €105m-endeavour co-funded by the European Regional Development Fund and the Italian government, include the restoration of the original town plan. When it is complete, 21st-century visitors will walk the same routes as the inhabitants in 1st century AD. In 2016, many areas cordoned off since 1980 had already been reopened.

‘We’re at the halfway mark,’ Osanna told me. The 6th district, with its magnificent Villa of the Mysteries, and the 7th are almost complete, while work planned for the 4th, 5th, and 9th districts commences in 2017, and the whole of Pompeii should be open to the public by the end of next year. Already, areas have been opened up in the vicinity of the Theatre and Odeon (small theatre), alleviating congestion as visitors flock to these ever-popular sights, and encouraging people to explore further afield.

The Theatre and Odeon, being close to the Nocera Gate, are easily reached. But a new app has been designed to encourage visitors to venture further afield. We trekked to the 2nd district at the far end of the site, home to the Amphitheatre, a truly impressive structure and still a popular musical venue today – this summer, it hosted concerts given by Elton John and David Gilmour. But I was seeking the newly restored frescos and mosaics on display in several houses both here and in the neighbouring 1st district.

‘Every detail of what we have is archived, photographed, and documented in a way never seen before,’ explains Osanna, ‘and this is essential for restoration and maintenance purposes. Restore and maintain is my motto.’

Facsimiles of artefacts found during excavation adorn several houses throughout Pompeii, including the Villa Imperiale in the 8th district, where replicas of dining furniture evoke the 1st century AD banqueting experience in the triclinium (dining room). Gardens, too, are getting a makeover, with botanically accurate reconstructions of their original designs.

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Newly reopened sections of Pompeii allow visitors to explore off the beaten track.

This is an extract from a feature published in CWA 80.  Read on in the magazine or click here to subscribe.

Images: E Lazer (top), Philips scanners (middle), L Bacino (bottom).

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