A Volcanic Venue

The excavated rooms of the Fullonica of Stephanus wool factory are home to some of Pompeii's best-preserved artifacts. Against one wall, terra-cotta basins used to wash wool in a mixture of water and urine—a winning formula before soap was developed—offer a rare glimpse of Pompeian life before the disastrous eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. But on a recent April morning, these stunning rooms were nearly the site of another explosion: a group of French tourists on the way out collided with some Germans trying to enter through the same narrow doorway. After much tussling, the umbrella-wielding tour guides broke the impasse. But the bottleneck underscores one of Pompeii's most serious problems: overcrowding. "I got here very early this morning, and my first three hours were wonderful," says David Lee, an American visiting the site with his 5-year-old daughter. "But that was before the tour buses showed up."

Pompeii's haunting ruins are one of the world's most important ongoing archeological digs, attracting nearly 2.6 million visitors each year. Not surprisingly, it is a major source of pride among Italians, who strive to showcase heritage sites without sullying their historical context. Like many Italian excavations, Pompeii is accessible, allowing tourists to wander through the ruins unhindered—provided they can find elbow room. Recent renovations and a new numbering system that make the ruins easier to navigate have only exacerbated the hordes of visitors descending daily on the dead city. 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 the number of daily visitors to hundreds instead of thousands, and make up for lost revenue in ticket sales by offering the ruins for rent. "By controlling the number of visitors, we could first make the Pompeii experience better for everyone," he says. "But we could also increase revenue by offering an opportunity for someone like Google or Microsoft to use the site for a private event."

In fact, Velardi has already talked to both tech giants about renting Pompeii, though he faces an admittedly tough battle winning governmental approval to use the public site for any private, non-Italian use. He also plans to talk to Pixar and Warner Bros. about leasing the ruins as movie sets, in light of the fact that Roman Polanski had to re-create the ruins in Spain for his movie "Pompeii," which is stalled in production. Velardi has a long list of other multinational corporations that he believes would be interested in and capable of paying the "astronomical" rental fee. "This is Pompeii, after all," he says. "It is obviously a venue that would command a major investment."

Certain sections of the historic site are already frequently rented out, but only for publicly financed events, not private use. In April, the grassy Grand Palestra was closed to visitors while workers set up a stage for a grand piano and banquet tables complete with white linen for a pre-election dinner sponsored by a local politician. Local organizations regularly sponsor specific projects in return for advertising on the scaffolding, or other branding opportunities that tie a restoration to the company funding it. Only the fast-food restaurant in the center of the site is privately run, which has so far translated to ludicrously high prices. "I just paid €30 for a bowl of pasta and a glass of wine," says Lee. "I can tell you firsthand that Pompeii is already all about commercialism."

According to Velardi's plan, anyone renting the site would be subject to a rigorous selection process and obliged to contribute something to the complex—the renovation of an existing excavation or the addition of basic infrastructure services, like restrooms or lighting. "This is not some sort of scandalous plan," says Velardi. "It's what they do at the MoMA, the Prado and the Louvre. Fendi even rented the Great Wall of China to organize a fashion show."

Still, the idea of a private, non-Italian organization like Microsoft taking over such a sacred site for commercial gain offends many Italians. Pompeii's superintendent, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, insists that visitors should be limited only to enhance the experience, not to turn a profit—even if the proceeds would go directly to the local Cultural Ministry for further investment in the site, which remains only two-thirds excavated. Not only is Pompeii a working excavation, but it is also widely considered a graveyard where thousands lost their lives in the eruption of Vesuvius. For many, renting out such a sacred spot to a multinational corporation is going a step too far.