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Pompeii: is this the best they can do with 105m?

The emergency restoration begun in 2013 seems to have ground to a halt, with many of the lost citys wonders hidden behind ugly fences. Call this a rescue?

Whats the point of loving Pompeii if we let it fall?

The ancient Roman city preserved in ash by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79 has never been more popular. The Neoclassical imitations and fashion for Pompeiian red that its beautiful art inspired when Pompeii first captured imaginations in the 18th century were enjoyed by an elite. Nowadays, Pompeii is pop culture, its totemic name resounding from blockbuster exhibitions to terrible disaster films to an episode of Dr Who. And at the site itself, the crowds keep coming.

Yet when I joined those crowds with my family recently, we were filtered ruthlessly between fenced off sections of the city. Huge areas of Pompeii are now closed off to visitors, behind ugly wire fences put up by a Neapolitan construction company after a series of collapses due to heavy rains in 2013 and 2014 caused worldwide consternation.

An emergency restoration project funded by the EU and Italy got under way to put right seeming years of neglect. The result, right now, looks like a neverending project that is scarring Pompeii as much as saving it. Those fences for starters! They have been slapped up carelessly all over the place, blocking off not only places where work is going on but where there is no visible sign of restoration. It looks more like an urban building site.

Plastic sheets cover the remains of a house at Pompeii. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

This is no whining TripAdvisor review. Our visit was not ruined by the construction works. Nor will yours be. Pompeii is the most revelatory and intimate archaeological site in the world. It opens more windows on ancient lives than anywhere else (except perhaps for nearby, and currently better-presented, Herculaneum). Archaeologists really should stop claiming such implausible finds as a British Pompeii. Unless they find an entire lost city of brothels, wall paintings, bakeries and a beautiful posh laundry, these comparisons are daft.

Yet here I go, enthusing about Pompeii, just like the museums that put on the Pompeii exhibitions and the TV documentaries exploring its wonders, while all the while the site is in jeopardy. Crisis has become the new normal at Pompeii.

Since the global alarm of four years ago, restoration seems to have settled into a slow, messy compromise. For an emergency project that was supposed to save endangered buildings and quickly the project shows no sign of nearing completion. How long will those fences be there? Is every part of the city closed off actually dangerous and if so why arent the works proceeding with more urgency?

Tourists stand on an ancient Roman cobbled street at Pompeii. Photograph: Alessandro Bianchi/Reuters

The day I saw it, some rebellious visitors were squeezing through one of the fences to explore the house beyond. It was understandable. Pompeii is beginning to feel like nearby modern Naples, a city notorious for corruption and organised crime. Paradoxically, the need to avoid infiltration by the Camorra syndicate in an area where its Mafia-like influence is pervasive has apparently slowed down the whole Pompeii project.

As the deadline to use EU funds approached this past winter, it transpired that only 21m out of the 105m originally on offer (including a large Italian contribution) had been spent. Organisers have blamed the need to screen every company and contract against corruption for slowing everything down but so has local rivalry for the juicy jobs. That EU deadline passed on 31 December.

Now the site seems sluggish again. Some of the buildings I was able to see, including the Fullonica of Stephanus, have been successfully restored with EU aid. Yet so many others I saw on previous visits, before this unending emergency, are now out of view. This is one of Europes the worlds irreplaceable wonders. Whats the point of decrying the attacks on antiquities by Isis if democratic Europe cannot maintain Pompeii adequately?

At least get some nicer fences.

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