A stone building in Pompeii that was used for training by gladiators has been reopened to the public after a painstaking three-year restoration, becoming an emblem of the renaissance of the ancient site.
The House of the Gladiators collapsed eight years ago after days of heavy rain, with many of its precious frescoes damaged or destroyed.
At the time it was seen as a symbol of Italy’s neglect for its unrivalled cultural heritage, with Pompeii in particular suffering from years of bad management and underinvestment.
“It was a metaphor of Italy being incapable of taking care of its cultural treasures,” Corriere della Sera, a leading Italian newspaper, commented recently.
But the ancient city, which was buried under lava, pumice and ash from the eruption of Mt Vesuvius in AD79, has had its fortunes turned around under the leadership of director Massimo Osanna, who took up his post in 2016.
Better funding has enabled him to take on more staff and to open up new parts of the archeological site to excavations, which over the past few months have led to a series of spectacular finds.
The 2,000-year-old Schola Armaturarum, as the building was known in Latin, was the headquarters of Pompeii’s gladiator association.
It was used by gladiators as a sort of club house, where they could train and relax before engaging in combat in the nearby amphitheatre.
When it was first excavated in 1915, archeologists found weapons inside it and elaborate decorations.
They also found amphorae containing olive oil, fine wines and garum, a pungent sauce made from fermented fish that the Romans used to flavour their food.
The wine, oil and garum, which came from Crete, Spain and North Africa, would have been served at official occasions.
The building’s damaged frescoes have been meticulously restored and it will now be open to the public every Thursday.
“From the metaphor of the Italian inability to take care of a precious place which belongs to all humanity, the reopening of the Schola Armaturarum represents a symbol of redemption for Pompeii,” Prof Osanna, the director general of the ancient site, said.
The collapse of the building in 2010 had led to “a chorus of international indignation” but the successful restoration project was “a sign of hope for the future of our cultural heritage”, he said.
Despite being discovered back in the 18th century, a third of Pompeii still remains unexcavated.
“Money, and more rigorous oversight,” was the key to the rebirth of Pompeii, according to Italy’s culture minister, Alberto Bonisoli, speaking in Rome this week.
A management culture of taking “shortcuts” had finally been brought to an end, he said.
Visitor numbers are up, too – from 2.5 million, four years ago, to an expected 3.6 million this year.
The discoveries at Pompeii have come thick and fast in the last few months, as archeologists conduct the most extensive digs since the 1950s.
Most recently, they uncovered a fresco on the wall of a villa bedroom that depicts the Roman god Jupiter, in the guise of a white swan, having sex with Leda, a queen of Sparta from Greek mythology.
The queen is painted in such a way that her gaze would have fallen on whoever entered the room.
“Leda watches the spectator with a sensuality that’s absolutely pronounced,” Prof Osanna said.
According to Greek mythology, Leda’s children included Helen of Troy and the twins Castor and Pollux.
In October, archeologists found a charcoal inscription that suggests that the eruption of Mt Vesuvius happened two months later than thought – in October AD 79, rather than August.
The inscription was found along with other bits of writing, much of it ribald.
“On the walls of the atrium and corridor of the villa there is a notable quantity of graffiti, which is still being studied, with phrases that are in some cases of an obscene character,” archeologists said.
Experts also uncovered mosaics depicting wild animals such as crocodiles, snakes, deer and lions, as well as frescoes of gods such as Venus, Adonis, Paris and Eros.
Earlier in the year, the remains of a carbonised horse were found, as well as the skeleton of a man who died as he tried to flee the catastrophe.
A massive block of stone that slammed into the ground near his head initially led experts to believe he died by being decapitated, but they later said they thought he died from inhaling noxious gases.
Scientists found that the man was suffering from a leg infection which may have prevented him from running away from the eruption.