Stefania Giudice, director of fresco restoration at Pompeii Archaeological Park in Naples, Italy, discusses recent developments at the Ancient Roman site, including the restoration of the house of the Vettii (the home of former slaves-turned-wine merchants) and the suburban villa of Diomede, as well as ongoing conservation at the insula occidentalis (a section of lavish villas previously overlooking the sea). Pompeii was famously preserved in volcanic ash following the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. Below, Giudice talks about highlights and challenges associated with preserving Pompeii.
How long have you been at the Pompeii Archaeological Park and what does your role entail?
It has been 22 years. I worked with a private company as a conservator for 10 years, before starting at Pompeii. I specialize in fresco restoration, but I also work with anything that has to do with stone, including mosaics, sculpture, carvings, and architectural elements like stucco. I have colleagues who specialize in organic materials. We have six conservators on staff and the rest of the work is contracted out. I organize the work and try to cover all the necessities of the site. It’s important that everything is covered and cared for by a conservator. I also do interviews, such as this, and I’m responsible for all the storage areas as well.
What was your involvement in the recent restoration of the house of the Vettii?
I was responsible, with a colleague, for overseeing the conservation work. I directed the operations and made sure everything was handled in a careful and prudent way—and with the right methodology, of course. One private company worked on the architectural aspects, while another focused on the house’s decoration such as the frescoes and sculptures. Everything had to be delicately reintegrated, but finally it’s beautiful again.
I think the biggest transformation was cleaning the paintings. It was evident that they were important. The house was protected from the beginning of the excavation with a big roof constructed overtop. The paintings were in good condition, as a result, but they previously endured a lot of poor conservation techniques. Conservators used to put paraffin wax on the walls, which helped the colors appear brighter and made it easier to read the surface of the paintings. Over time, however, it became very thick and opaque, not unlike dirt sitting on the surface. We couldn’t see a lot of the colors or the details anymore. So, proper cleaning treatments were very important to the overall restoration.
We also recently restored frescoes at the suburban villa of Diomede, located just outside the city walls. We completed the villa of the mysteries, which was another luxurious residence, prior to that. We are soon going to open the house of the silver wedding, which is another very beautiful house in the middle of Pompeii. There have been many new discoveries, so there is a lot to see.
How have some of these discoveries impacted your work?
We are constantly looking for new solutions as problems emerge and shift. In insula five, for example, we found this beautiful fresco of Leda with the swan. In the same room there were fragments of an intricately painted ceiling, but it collapsed likely during the 79 CE eruption of Mount Vesuvius. When archaeologists collected the pieces and restorers reconstructed the ceiling, we realized that it actually would have been vaulted. We had to calculate the curvature and construct a new support for the ceiling. It was very difficult, but the result is beautiful. It is now in an exhibition at the Palestra Grande.
What are you working on now?
Now that I’ve finished directing the restoration at the house of the Vettii, I’m focusing on a big restoration in insula occidentalis, which was part of the richest houses on the western side of Pompeii. They would have overlooked the sea, which at the time was much closer. There, we have these richly decorated residences like the house of the golden bracelet and the house of Fabio Rufo. This part of the city is currently undergoing restorations and will open to visitors again. I also visit exhibitions around the world where artifacts unearthed at Pompeii are on view.
What are some of the biggest challenges facing you in your job right now?
The biggest challenge is trying to slow deterioration because Pompeii is not a museum with a controlled environment, but a natural park open to all the elements. There is rain, cold temperatures, snow, ice, sun, salt, humidity, and wind—all of which is very dangerous and chemically aggressive on the materials. We do our best to control these deterioration factors, along with general wear and tear on the site.