Aschaffenburg, Germany – So ancient is Europe that even a “new” building often seems as battered and worn as an “old” one. East of Frankfurt, restorers have struggled to remove the scars of nearly 160 years from a reproduction Roman villa which used to offer a vision of luxury living in the Italian city of Pompeii before a volcanic eruption on August 24 in 79 AD.
Mount Vesuvius exploded, raining ash on the city, sending streams of lava racing down the mountainside and suffocating its people with toxic gases. In three days, the Italian city was covered by a 2.6- metre-thick layer of volcanic material.
In the 19th century, archaeological excavations brought much of the city back to light, inspiring not just a fascination with Roman life but also a desire to look beyond the faded frescoes, grey old stone and blank marble of Ancient Rome and visualize it in full colour.
The Pompejanum was built in the German city of Aschaffenburg as a replica of a villa in Pompeii. The rich reds, intense blues and greens of its wall paintings are a shock to anyone expecting the dullness of the ancient ruins.
“The excavations were expanding during the reign of King Ludwig I of Bavaria,” explained a Pompejanum art historian, Werner Helmberger.
Like many educated Europeans, Ludwig had made the Grand Tour to Italy and had been fascinated by the discoveries.
“He noticed how quickly the colourful Roman frescoes faded when they were brought to light,” said Georg Fahrenschon, today’s Bavarian finance minister, who oversaw funding of the replica’s restoration. That gave him the idea of building a reproduction villa.
“He never intended to live there. Its purpose was to educate Bavarians about classical architecture,” said Helmberger.
In 1843, Ludwig laid the foundation stone at Aschaffenburg, a town in the far north of his kingdom, and the replica with its colourful interior was completed in 1850. But within a century it was as much a ruin as Pompeii was.
During the Second World War, the US Army shelled Aschaffenburg. The walls of the Pompejanum were smashed and the frescoes lost. The building is close to the Main River, and dampness from the soil crept into what was left, worsening the damage, along with vandalism.
Teenagers lit campfires in the rooms or scratched hearts into the plaster. A bullet which remains impacted in the nose of the goddess Hera in a mosaic apparently dates from those violent days.
Restoration of this outpost of Campania began in the 1960s. In the decades since, fashions in historical preservation have regularly changed and each phase followed different principles. The last, intensive phase began in 1989.
In line with current principles that advocate showing a building’s many phases, parts of the Pompejanum are fully restored to their 1848 state and others seem frozen in their state of war destruction in 1945.
The Housewife’s Room, opened to the public this month when the work was completed, has largely grey walls, where the US shells wrecked the frescoes. They have only been restored at a few spots.
Restorer Armin Schmickl-Prochnow said: “We make a point of only using the materials of 2,000 years ago. They are simply earth pigments with some lime added to bond them.”
Raimund Wuensche, head of the Bavarian state antiquities collection, said the 12.7 million euros (17 million dollars) spent since the 1960s on restoring the Pompejanum had been well worth it.
“It’s a unique feeling here: the space, the frescoes, the culture, all in one place.”