Pompeii's Second Destruction

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In early November a building where athletes once trained to fight collapsed into a pile of rubble. Since then, structures have been tumbling down at an astonishing rate. Huge sections of a garden wall around the House of the Moralist fell on two separate occasions. In early December an ancient shop and the House of the Small Lupanare were reduced to heaps of mortar. Shelves regularly fall from the moldings, and a wooden scaffolding put in place a half-century ago is visibly rotting. Reports in the local newspaper suggest that many more buildings have crumbled without a mention. The government blames an unusually rainy autumn for the recent damage, but since 2008 there have been 15 major catastrophes that experts attribute to neglect. The irony is that if any city should know how to deal with ruins, it’s this one: Pompeii.

The ruins of Pompeii, destroyed after the Italian volcano Mount Vesuvius blew its top in A.D. 79, have actually been falling apart for years. “The real truth is, no one has done anything to secure these ancient excavations since they were excavated,” says Claudio D’Alessio, mayor of Pompeii. “You’d think that at least [the recent destruction] would have prompted an intervention to prevent new collapses, but there’s not much more than a few fences to make sure the next collapse doesn’t hurt anyone.” Pompeii has intermittently been on the World Monuments Fund’s list of endangered sites to watch, and UNESCO dispatched an unprecedented emergency mission to the city in early December after the House of Gladiators fell. Experts from the International Council on Monuments and Sites studied the damage at more than a dozen of Pompeii’s most popular relics and demanded that streets be closed on Jan. 1 while emergency fortifications are put in place. But those Band-Aids have about as much chance of saving the city as the locals did when Vesuvius erupted. Some experts predict that Pompeii as we know it is unlikely to survive even beyond the next decade....

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