New discoveries in Pompeii

Pompeii. “Pompeii never ceases to dazzle us, it is a setting that always reveals new treasures! » A necessary comment for the Italian Minister of Culture Gennaro Sangiuliano, whatever the artistic or archaeological value of the discoveries. This time it applies perfectly to the discovery announced on March 1 by the director of the site, Gabriel Zuchtriegel. The excavations of the house of Leda, one of the residences of the ancient city destroyed and buried under ashes in the year 79 by the eruption of Vesuvius, amaze archaeologists. They thus uncovered several frescoes of extraordinary freshness, some of which appear like a painting with its frame on a wall surrounded by delicate decorations. The most remarkable of them represents the mythological scene of the flight on the ram with the Golden Fleece of Phrixos and his twin Helle in front of their stepmother Ino (see ill.). The others feature still lifes and portraits of women, notably in medallions.

Very refined decorations

While cleaning operations on the frescoes are underway to consolidate them before moving on to the restoration phase, archaeologists have discovered two other domus near Leda's house. This house of which they are seeking to establish the precise plan is undoubtedly the one with the most refined decor. Found in 2018, its name was given to it because of a magnificent fresco representing Leda and the Swan (see ill. below). A late discovery due to its location: zone 5 (north of the city) could not be excavated earlier for funding reasons. An obstacle that is no longer relevant. This is a “crucial moment” for Pompeii, welcomed the director of its archaeological park, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, taking stock of the restoration and excavation work on the house of Leda. These anticipate the start of a new and grandiose phase of work.

Fresco representing Leda and the swan.

© Pompeii Archaeological Park

A decade ago, these were not the decorations on the walls of domus but their collapse which made the headlines in the media. The archaeological park suffered from a glaring lack of maintenance. On November 6, 2010 at dawn, the gladiators' barracks (Ludus Magnus) collapsed, sparking indignation around the world and awareness of the need for urgent intervention. The “Grand Pompeii Project” was then launched in 2012. A vast plan of 105 million euros financed 75% by the European Union to secure the site, coupled with a relaunch of excavation campaigns. It is entrusted to its dynamic director from 2014 to 2020, Massimo Osanna, at the head of a permanent team of 50 specialists – archaeologists, restorers, architects, engineers, geologists, vulcanologists and paleo-botanists. “Pompeii has represented for too long the metaphor of an Italy plagued by corruption, incapable of defending and promoting its extraordinary heritage,” lamented the latter upon taking office.

Attendance up 30% in 2023

His successor, Gabriel Zuchtriegel, is now pleased to direct a site that has become the symbol of exemplary management of Italy's archaeological heritage. Announcements of resounding discoveries continue to multiply. The latest dates back to the beginning of December 2023. This is a sort of “prison bakery” where donkeys and slaves worked side by side to produce bread in inhumane conditions. “After years of securing the site as part of the Great Project, we are now entering a phase in which we must navigate towards new horizons, explains Gabriel Zuchtriegel. Our work is based on an urban planning approach, applied to an archaeological city. We are working towards a sort of archaeo-urban regeneration which broadens the perspective, we move from purely archaeological and conservation issues to an urban and socio-cultural vision. »

Accessibility, the promotion of green spaces, new infrastructures which will contribute to “modernizing” the ruins of the city frozen for 2000 years are among its priorities. Services for welcoming the public have thus been significantly improved, as have the connections to reach the site which saw an influx of more than 4 million visitors in 2023, a figure up 30% over one year. A record which makes it exceed the attendance before the pandemic and which raises Pompeii to the rank of second most visited tourist site in Italy after the Colosseum in Rome. New exhibition centers are being built while new depots to conserve the remains will open at Porta Nola, Stabia and Torre Annunziata. “We must erase the rigid boundaries between the ancient city and the modern city,” advocates Gabriel Zuchtriegel, who envisages the archaeological park as “a central element and not isolated from the territory that surrounds it”.

Massive investments

The site will benefit between 2024 and 2026 from investments of more than 100 million euros, including 25 million euros already planned for its ordinary management. Currently, 28 construction sites are open on the site with an area of ​​approximately 22 ha. Estimates vary, but 15 to 25% of the ancient city is still buried. Eleven other projects are about to be launched and others are under study. Among these, nine are real stratigraphic excavations, most of them intended to improve the conditions of conservation and protection of the heritage already unearthed. The entire excavation area now covers more than 9,000 square meters in total, an area never reached since the major campaigns of the 1950s. However, many archaeologists are beginning to raise the question of the usefulness of increasing the number of excavation sites. search. They are less concerned with knowing what remains to be discovered than with the means to be implemented to preserve what has already been discovered. While waiting to receive a response, the site so often celebrated by successive Italian Ministers of Culture will very soon reveal new treasures.

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