Inside Story

Behind the collapse of Pompeii’s “House of the Gladiators”

Despite the best efforts of its overseers, two and a half centuries of excavation have left Pompeii vulnerable to weather and human activity, writes Frank Sear

Frank Sear 18 November 2010 2027 words

The “House of the Gladiators” as it would have looked in Roman times, depicted in Vittorio Spinazzola’s massive study of Pompeii, published in 1953.

JUST UNDER two weeks ago, on the morning of Saturday 6 November, custodians beginning their day’s work at Pompeii found that one of the buildings on the site had collapsed overnight. Although it is usually identified by scholars as a schola armaturarum (or meeting hall) for a military association, the building is more commonly referred to as the “House of the Gladiators.” The name seems to stem from a misunderstanding of the frescoes on the façade, which show trophies, and the frescoes inside the hall, which show winged Victories carrying lances and shields.

The House of the Gladiators is on Pompeii’s main shopping street, Via dell’Abbondanza, which was first excavated by Vittorio Spinazzola, the director of the National Museum at Naples and ex officio director of the archaeological site from 1910 to 1923. Much of Spinazzola’s life was devoted to the excavation of this street, whose name – which translates as Street of Abundance – reflects the wealth of houses and shops found along it.

Spinazzola was a meticulous excavator. He carefully restored the façades of the shops and houses, paying particular attention to their upper storeys, windows, doorways, balconies and roofs. After his work on the site stopped in 1923, he spent the rest of his life preparing a monumental publication on the excavations, which he put in the hands of the prestigious publishing house, Enrico Hoepli of Milan. In April 1943, with the book almost complete – 672 pages, 604 illustrations and 26 large lithographs had been printed – Spinazzola died in Milan. In the summer of the same year the publishing house was bombed and every single copy of the book was destroyed, along with all the zinc plates for the illustrations. To make the tragedy complete, the Via dell’Abbondanza, including the House of the Gladiators, suffered serious damage from allied bombing soon after, in August and September 1943.

All seemed to be lost until it was discovered that the original text, illustrations and photographs had been taken to Rome for safety. Suddenly the possibility of publication was revived, but in 1945 the house of Hoepli announced that its losses in the war were so great that it could no longer undertake such a massive project. Eventually, in 1948, the Ministero dell’istruzione pubblica (Ministry of Public Instruction) agreed to publish the work to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the excavations of Pompeii. The result was three massive volumes, which came out in 1953, a fitting tribute to the lifetime of work Spinazzola had devoted to Pompeii.

THE RECENT calamity was thus the third to be suffered by the House of the Gladiators. Although the press was full of reports about the loss of this archaeologically important building, it was already in a poor condition. The fine paintings of military trophies on its door jambs were largely destroyed in 1943, as were many of the beautiful frescoes of winged Victories carrying shields on the inside walls.

The real significance of the collapse lay in the fact that it was the latest in a long list of disasters to have struck Pompeii in recent years, including the 1980 earthquake, which did severe damage throughout the city, and the roof collapse in the House of the Labyrinth, which destroyed one of the most famous frescoed rooms on the site. The Via dell’Abbondanza is particularly prone to disaster because little of the north side of the street has been excavated, apart from the façades of the buildings or one or two rooms, making the buildings highly vulnerable to the massive pressure exerted by the land mass behind. Heavy rains make matters worse, and water infiltration seems to have been the immediate cause of the collapse of the House of the Gladiators.

But the real cause of disasters like this lie much further in the past. Pompeii is arguably both the oldest and largest open-air archaeological site in the world. The excavation began in 1748 and the 250 years of excavation since then has exposed a total of forty-four hectares to the elements all year round. As soon as a building is exposed to the air the damage starts, and further human activity only accelerates the process. In the eighteenth century, for example, houses were frequently excavated twice, the second excavation staged to impress important visitors with “finds” planted so that they could be “discovered” and then given away as gifts. Ironically, the only good thing that can be said about excavations of that era is that important frescoes were cut from the walls and taken to the Royal Collection, thus saving them from the elements. Mercifully, rooms were refilled when nothing of importance was found.

By the early nineteenth century, however, newly excavated buildings were rarely filled in and the houses were mostly left unroofed. Sometimes protective roofs were placed over a well-preserved section of a wall painting, but they often simply directed the rain onto other parts of the painting, damaging and often destroying them. It was not until 1860, when Giuseppe Fiorelli began a fifteen-year period as director of the excavations at Pompeii, that something approaching an era of scientific investigation began at Pompeii. It was he who gave the city its triple numbering system, consisting of region, insula block and individual doorway. (The House of the Gladiators is III.3.6.) He also invented the method of injecting plaster into the cavities left by bodies in the lava. Items and paintings of interest were still routinely removed to the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

Under Fiorelli’s successor, Michele Ruggiero, director from 1875 to 1893, the larger houses were restored as they came to light, keeping their furnishings and decorations intact and restoring their gardens. An example of his work is the House of the Silver Wedding, which was fully restored and re-roofed with decorations and wall-paintings kept as intact as possible. The late nineteenth century was a particularly fertile period of excavation and the large number of wall-paintings found during this period enabled the famous German archaeologist, August Mau, to devise his four Pompeian styles of wall-painting, a system that is still a basis for typing wall-paintings to this day.

Up until the end of Vittorio Spinazzola’s directorship, in 1923, archaeologists had stopped digging at the AD79 level of the city. Spinazzola’s successor was the dynamic but controversial Amedeo Maiuri, whose long tenure at Pompeii lasted from 1924 until 1961. His interest in stratigraphy led him to excavate into the subsoil, exposing earlier phases of the Forum, the Large Theatre and the Basilica. He also energetically explored behind the façades along the Via dell’Abbondanza and uncovered the city walls and adjoining cemeteries. In the period before the second world war he made such notable discoveries as the famous room in the Villa of the Mysteries, thought to depict an initiation into a secret rite. He also excavated the well-preserved House of the Menander. He was responsible for much of the re-roofing of the House of the Vettii and attempted to recreate the atmosphere of houses by leaving utensils in situ and restoring the ceilings. Maiuri survived fascism and the war, although much of Pompeii did not. After the war, chronic underfunding of the excavations led him to sell volcanic material to the company building the Naples–Salerno autostrada in order to obtain materials and workmen; one consequence was that buildings were quickly excavated and then abandoned.

Scholars were becoming alarmed at the rapid deterioration of the exposed remains of Pompeii and the fact that many of the wall decorations had perished without being recorded. The problems are easy to see today. Weeds grow all over the site. Most houses are still unroofed and unprotected from the rain. Rising damp combines with alkaline elements in the mortar to produce a soluble salt that pushes its way through walls, dislodging the plaster. The sun fades the unprotected paintings until they practically disappear. Pigeons nest in the remains, their highly acidic droppings becoming such a problem in neighbouring Herculaneum that hawks were brought in to drive them away. Tourism, too, has become a huge problem, with about 2.5 million visitors to Pompeii and Herculaneum each year. According to Antonio Varone, director of the Pompeii excavations, Pompeii alone received 2.2 million visitors in the first ten months of 2010. Daring thefts, souvenir hunting, graffiti and the earthquake of 1980 have added further to Pompeii’s woes.

IN 1974, noticing the rapid deterioration of the exposed remains of Pompeii, Helmut Kyrieleis of the German Archaeological Institute at Berlin initiated Houses in Pompeii, a project that aimed to record what was still standing before it disappeared entirely. An Australian team, which I co-directed from the University of Melbourne with Jean-Paul Descœudres of the University of Sydney, was invited to join them in 1976. The project involved documenting a carefully selected series of houses that were in good condition when they were first excavated, in some cases almost two centuries ago, but had since deteriorated badly. Walls were cleaned, incrustation removed and plaster analysed to get a clearer idea of what the frescoes really looked like. They were then photographed, parts of them were traced and the walls were studied minutely so that all the details could be recorded.

Other archaeologists worked on the architecture of each house, producing ground plans, sections and elevations as well as detailed drawings of architectural elements, such as mouldings, ornaments and column capitals. The mortar was analysed and detailed studies were made of the structure of each house in order to determine the building phases. Archives, archaeological notebooks, old watercolours and drawings and earlier publications were all consulted to gain the fullest possible picture of each house and its excavation. I also made detailed studies of the water systems of some of the houses, which involved being lowered into underground water cisterns so as to measure them and work out their capacity, the system of waterproofing, the inlet system and the overflow system.

Over the years the Australian team has worked on the House of the Coloured Capitals, the House of the Old Hunt and the House of the Grand Duke, all in Region VII, Insula 4, close to the Forum of Pompeii. Penelope Allison and I collaborated on a large volume, Casa della Caccia Antica (VII.4.48), published in the Houses in Pompeii series in 2002, and Professor Descœudres and I are working on an even larger volume for the series. Each large-format book fully documents a single house and is lavishly illustrated with plans, sections, photographs and detailed reconstructed drawings of the wall-paintings.

For Pompeii as a whole things were beginning to look up with the appointment of Pietro Giovanni Guzzo as superintendent in 1995. A law was passed in 1997 giving the Archaeological Superintendency at Pompeii financial autonomy by allowing all the gate receipts – a sum approaching €20 million a year – to be retained and spent on the site. In 1998 Guzzo commissioned a conservation report which included the estimated costs for preserving at least part of the site. Meanwhile, the funds in hand were used for conservation across the whole site, including famous houses like the House of Menander and the House of the Vettii. At the same time the experience for visitors was improved, with new signs, leaflets and itineraries and an audio guide system.

But despite all of these efforts, most of the buildings continue to crumble and most of the houses are still closed to the public. In 2008 the Italian government declared a state of emergency for Pompeii and made a temporary allocation of extra funds for its upkeep. These are still insufficient, as the latest disaster has shown, but that doesn’t mean that recent calls for the privatisation of the site should be taken seriously. Privatisation would represent a total abdication of governmental responsibility as well as constituting a further threat to the site.

The present state of affairs is not surprising given what has happened to Pompeii during the last 250 years. The best that can be said of the whole sorry situation is that a third of the site is still buried. It should stay that way. •