New Pompeii Plan Draws Fire

The excavated rooms of the Fullonica of Stephanus wool factory are home to some of Pompeii's best-preserved artifacts. Against one wall the terracotta basins used to wash wool with a mixture of water and urine—a winning formula before soap was developed—offer a rare glimpse into Pompeian life before the disastrous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. But on a recent morning these stunning chambers became the scene of a clash of a different kind. On one side French tourists were trying to get out. On the other German visitors were trying to get in. They met, and got stuck, in the room's narrow doorway. After much elbowing, shoving and cursing, umbrella-wielding tour guides broke the impasse. The bottleneck, however, underscores one of Pompeii's most serious problems: overcrowding.

Pompeii's haunting ruins are one of the world's most important ongoing archaeological digs, attracting nearly 2.6 million visitors each year. Not surprisingly, the site is a major source of national pride among Italians, who strive to showcase heritage sites without sullying their historical context. Like many Italian excavations, Pompeii's accessibility allows tourists to wander through the ancient ruins unhindered—provided they can find the elbow room. Now local officials have come up with a controversial plan to fix the chronic crunch. Campania's new regional heritage councilor, Claudio Velardi, wants to limit visitors to the site and offer the newly freed-up space as a venue to rent to large foreign corporations. "My idea is very precise," Velardi told NEWSWEEK. "By programming the number of visitors we could, first, make the Pompeii experience better for everyone. But we could also increase revenue by offering an opportunity for someone like Google or Microsoft to use the site for a private event."

Indeed, Velardi has already had talks with both these tech giants about renting Pompeii for sponsored and private events, even though he faces an admittedly tough battle to get governmental approval to use a public site for any private non-Italian use. Undeterred, he also plans to talk to Pixar and Warner Bros. about leasing the ruins as movie sets after Roman Polanski's film "Pompeii," which is stalled in production, was shot in Spain. Velardi has a long list of other multinational companies that he believes would be interested and able to afford what he refers to only as an "astronomical" rental fee. "This is Pompeii, after all," he says. "It is obviously a venue that would command a major investment."

In most countries this might seem like a sensible suggestion. But in Italy the proposal is seen as absurd and has become a lightning rod for a broader political debate about whether the nation's archeological treasures are going to become backdrops for American-style theme parks. Italian heritage sites have always been run according to strict rules meant to protect their integrity. To many Italians the notion of any sort of commercial meddling by outsiders—especially American concerns that may "Disneyfy" a site like Pompeii—will detract from its aesthetic and cultural value. "We face an incredible battle to do what would, in the end, be the best thing for Pompeii," says Velardi. "The opposition is completely closed to the idea because they see it as selling Pompeii rather than enhancing the site."

Certain sections of the ruins are already frequently rented out for publicly financed events. Last week the grassy Grand Palestra was closed to visitors as workers set up a stage for a grand piano and linen-covered banquet tables for a pre-election dinner sponsored by a local politician. And many organizations regularly sponsor specific projects in return for branding opportunities. The California-based Packard Humanities Institute has given 1.5 million euros in grants toward the conservation of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum, and local companies like the Compagnia di San Paolo have funded restorations of the Terme Suburbane and the Lupanare brothel.

That, however, hasn't curbed criticism from people like Pompeii's superintendent Pietro Giovanni Guzzo. Guzzo insists that limiting visitors should only be for the enhancement of services and not to turn a privately generated profit, even if the proceeds would go directly to the local cultural ministry for reinvestment. While Pompeii is considered an active archaeological dig, most funds allocated to the ruins are strictly for conservation and upkeep rather than any further exploration. Only two-thirds (44 hectares, or 107 acres) of the buried city has been excavated since the first digs began in the 18th century. An estimated 350 million euros would be needed to dig up the remaining third, but some conservationists would prefer to keep it underground as a way of preserving it for future generations. Velardi argues that renting out the site could even fund future digs.

Other opponents say that the plan also blurs the line between Italy's public cultural heritage and private enterprise. Michele Trimarchi, professor of arts economics at the University of Bologna, worries that opening up the site for private sponsors will backfire. He points to failed experiments like the privatization of some of Rome's major monuments—and the fact that they eventually had to revert to public administrators. "Restricted entry on its own is pointless," he says. "It serves a purpose if it ensures an enhanced visitor experience, which will not come from handing the site over to private sponsors who have already proved disappointing in the heritage sector."

Velardi counters by saying that any corporation hoping to use the site would be subject to a rigorous selection process and would be required to contribute to improving on the premises. This could include renovating an existing excavation or providing funds to upgrade basic infrastructure, like lighting or restrooms. "This is not some sort of scandalous plan," says Velardi. "It's what they do at the MoMA, the Prado and the Louvre." In ancient Pompeii, though, that may just be too modern an idea.