Clonony Castle, Ireland’s link with the Boleyn family


Cluain Damhna
Coordinates: 53°14′N 7°55′WCoordinates: 53°14′N 7°55′W
Country Ireland
Province Leinster
County Offaly
Time zone WET (UTC+0)
 • Summer (DST) IST (WEST) (UTC-1)

Clonony (Irish: Cluain Damhna Beag) is a hamlet in County Offaly, Ireland, on the R357 regional road. Located between the River Brosna and the Grand Canal, it is noted for its late medieval tower house of the same name, which was built in 1500. It is situated in the parish of Gallen and Reynegh and lies approximately one mile west of Cloghan and four miles east of Banagher.

Clonony Castle

Clonony Castle

Clonony Castle (Caisleán Chluain Damhna) is a Tudor castle built by the MacCoughlan clan, and ceded to Henry VIII by John Óg MacCoghlan, then to Thomas Boleyn when Henry wanted to marry his daughter Anne.[1] Mary and Elizabeth Boleyn, second cousins to Queen Elizabeth I, lived out their lives in this castle and their tombstone still stands on the castle grounds. The grave was discovered in 1803, approximately 100 yards from the castle. The inscription on the eight feet by four feet, limestone flag reads: “Here under leys Elisabeth and Mary Bullyn, daughters of Thomas Bullyn, son of George Bullyn the son of George Bullyn Viscount Rochford son of Sir Thomas Bullyn Erle of Ormond and Willsheere.”[2]

The castle was occupied from 1612 to about 1620 by Matthew de Renzi (1577–1634), a London cloth merchant originally from Cologne in Germany, who created the first English-Irish dictionary, according to his tombstone in Athlone. He acquired it after it had been forfeited by the MacCoghlans during the Nine Years’ War.[3]

The fifty-foot tower, an Irish National Monument, is surrounded by gardens and a moat. The castle is a few miles from Clonmacnoise, an ancient seat of Irish learning. Shannon Harbour and the towns of Cloghan, Banagher and Shannonbridge are close by. The castle is currently being restored, and is open to the public at no cost, and although there are no specific hours, the owners try to keep the castle open and encourage tours.

The castle has all the basic features of a tower house of this period such as machicolation, murder hole, base batter, mural passages, spiral staircase, gun-loops, garderobe and bawn. The first floor had collapsed but has been replaced in recent restoration works by the owners. The castle also boasts a barrel-vaulted ceiling making up the second floor which has been restored.[4] The Tower House is three storeys high with an entrance in the west wall with a machicolation above it. There is a fire-proof vault over the ground floor in the interior and a spiral stair leads to the upper floors. There are round-headed, ogee-headed and flat headed windows. The bawn wall with its two square corner towers and entrance, which had a coat of arms, was reconstructed in the nineteenth century and gives a good impression of how an original Tower House might have looked, with a set of perimeter and internal defences. The inner bawn building in front of the west entrance appears to be a nineteenth-century construction.[5]

The Annals of the Four Masters record “A great war broke out in Dealbhna between the descendants of Farrell Mac Coghlan and the descendants of Donnell, in the course of which James Mac Coghlan, Prior of Gailinne, and the Roydamna of Dealbhna Eathra, was killed by a shot fired from the castle of Cluain-damhna.”[5][6]


  1. Sweetman, David, Medieval Castles of Ireland, Dublin, 2000.
  2. Clonony Castle, Banagher, A Brief History, Banagher Parish Council, June 1951.
  3. Ryan, Brendan, A German Planter in the Midlands, History Ireland. Retrieved on 27 January 2013.
  4. Clonony Castle, The Standing Stone. Retrieved on 27 January 2013.
  5. Clonony Castle, Cultural Heritage Ireland. Retrieved on 27 January 2013.
  6. Annála Ríoghachta Éireann (Annals of the Four Masters), M1519.15: Coccadh mór i n-Dealbhna etir Sliocht Ferghail Még Cochláin & Sliocht Domhnaill dia ro marbhadhSemus Mag Cochláin prióir Gailinne, & ríoghdhamhna Dealbhna Ethra d’urchor do pheilér as caislén Cluana Damhna.

See also

External links

A German Planter in the Midlands

Published in Early Modern History (1500–1700), Issue 1 (Spring 2000), News, Volume 8

Born in Cologne, Germany, in 1577, Mathew de Renzi claimed descent from Albania’s national hero, George Castriott, also known as Scanderberg (d.1468), who defended his homeland against the Turks. De Renzi was a cloth merchant and operated from Antwerp, one of many foreigners who controlled trade in that city. But Antwerp’s trade declined as a result of the long drawn out conflict between the ruling Spanish Hapsburgs and the Dutch United Provinces to the north, and sometime before 1604 de Renzi moved to London. By January 1606 he found himself in financial difficulties, unable to recoup money owed from other merchants: he was declared bankrupt, his creditors were after him, and in August he beat a hasty retreat to Scotland en route to Ireland.
He arrived in Ireland penniless, but soon became friendly with Sir Arthur Chichester, then Lord Deputy. Chichester saw in him an enterprising man of trade, and thus an asset for the ‘benefit of the kingdom’. During his first year in Ireland he curried favour with important establishment figures in Dublin, also visiting the port towns of Waterford, Limerick and Galway. He stayed in Thomond for some time where he became friendly with the old Irish family of Mac Bruaideadh, who were the hereditary historians of the O’Briens, Earls of Thomond. Here he learned spoken or colloquial Irish. His teachers were Conchubhar and Tadhg Mac Daire MacBruaideadh, who were both associated with the cycle of poems known as Iomarbhaidh na bhFilé [The Contention of the Bards]. From Tadhg Ó hUiginn of Sligo he learned classical Irish so that he could read Irish manuscripts and write the language. Although de Renzi was a linguist of note (speaking Latin, Italian, English, German, French and Spanish), his object in learning Irish had nothing to do with missionary zeal or even linguistic curiosity: it was motivated by a practical need to establish himself as a landowner in a Gaelic lordship.
Sometime in 1612 de Renzi arrived in West Offaly, the territory known as Delvin Eathra or Delvin MacCoghlan (the MacCoghlans were the hereditary chieftains of the area), nowadays the barony of Garrycastle, encompassing the towns of Ferbane, Banagher, Cloghan and Shannonbridge. It was bounded on the west by the river Shannon, and bogs made it almost inaccessible on the other three sides. He acquired a hundred acres in the Clononey area, including Clononey Castle, property which had been forfeited by Cuchogrie MacCoghlan, killed in 1601 during the Nine Years War. De Renzi bought it from a middle-ranking administrator, Roger Downton, probably using the dowry from his first wife, whom he had married in 1608.
When he first arrived Delvin Eathra was a vast countryside of woods and bogs, almost totally inhabited by native Irish, who spoke only Irish, and whom de Renzi described as idle, backward in speech, manners, dress and customs. Many of them bore the name MacCoghlan. He moved into the castle which had very small windows and as a result was in a state of almost perpetual darkness. He had no way of knowing for sure the extent of his lands or its boundaries. The MacCoghlans ignored his presence and ploughed his land, a customary method of indicating a land dispute. He hired local labour but there were constant outbreaks of violence between both parties.
The MacCoghlans were under instructions from the head of the clan, Sir John Óg MacCoghlan, to shun this interloper, neither to sell to him nor to buy from him, except at excessive rates. De Renzi wrote many letters to the lords deputy in Dublin and to King James I in England, seeking help and proposing schemes of plantation. His many letters give useful insights into the difficulties experienced by a settler landowner.
In January he wrote from Killenboy, County Roscommon, to Sir Oliver St John. Killenboy, situated between Knockcroghery and Lanesboro, was the home place of Richard Maypowder who had received a grant of land in 1616. De Renzi’s second wife, Anne, was a daughter of Maypowder. The Maypowder family lived in Kilteevan House, in the adjoining townland of Cloontogher, until the early years of this century and the name still persists. De Renzi was afraid to spend the winter in Clononey for fear of the MacCoghlans. His possession of the land was being hotly contested: ‘I have thought good to spend the dark winter nights here in Connacht.’
He argued that plantation would civilise Delvin Eathra. He listed the barbarous customs of the natives, such as attaching ploughs to horses’ tails, the burning of straw, the Brehon Laws, and the custom of migrating each summer with their cattle to the uplands, known as ‘booleying’. Most, he claimed, built their house without chimneys:

They live upon oaten bread and spreckled butter all the year, lie in straw, wear a shirt for four months or till it be rotten afore it be washed, keep beastly houses, endure rain, cold, and snow all day and then roast themselves at night like hogs; go naked and cazer from one smokie cabin to another; eat their meat at unseasonable time, fast sometimes two or three days together, and then eat so much again when they come at it as will keep them three of four days fasting after, like unto hungry wolves.

Next, he wrote of the idleness of the people and the lack of tradesmen. However, most of his venom was reserved for Sir John Óg MacCoghlan (Seán Óg), head of the sept. Even though Sir John had remained loyal to the Crown during the Elizabethan wars, he was portrayed by de Renzi as a traitor and a threat. He saw MacCoghlan as the main force behind the attempts to thwart him in his acquisitions and his letters demonised him. Seán Óg could not be trusted because he was ‘but a bastard, born in double bastardy’, and ruled as a tyrant, suppressing his own people. He related tales of terror perpetrated by MacCoghlan on English settlers and on his own people. Finally, he saw Delvin Eathra as having a strategic location. It was an important access route to Connacht and contained two major crossings of the Shannon, at Banagher and Shannonbridge.
It is difficult to assess the sincerity of these arguments or if they were a cover for his own greed. His grant of a hundred acres soon grew to 1,016 and he acquired properties in Counties Westmeath, Wexford and Dublin. Delvin Eathra was eventually planted in 1619/20, as were parts of Westmeath, Longford and Leitrim. About that time he sold his interest in Clononey; like others before him, he had used it as a stepping stone to greater things. He moved to Dublin and became a government administrator, always with a view to his own aggrandisement. He was knighted in 1627.
His interest in the Irish language was complex. He had mastered both the written and spoken language and was able, through conversing with the natives, to trace the genealogy of the MacCoghlans back four generations. He used this knowledge of the local béaloideas to strengthen his claim to the disputed land at Clononey. Such was his deep knowledge of both colloquial and classical Irish that he was nominated by the poets of the South (Leath Mhogha) as their independent judge against the poets of the North (Leath Chuinn), in what became known as the Contention of the Bards (1616-24).
By June 1608 he had composed an Irish grammar. He also claimed to have composed an Irish dictionary, as well as ‘chronicles in the Irish tongue’. Yet he advocated the destruction of Gaelic culture and manuscripts, seeing in them a form of propaganda which glorified dynasticism and incited the Irish against the English conquest.
He died on 29 August 1634 at the age of fifty-seven. His son, also Mathew, commissioned a memorial in his honour. It was erected in St Mary’s Church, Athlone, in 1635. When the present St Mary’s Church was built in 1820 the memorial was inserted in the rear wall, where it may still be seen. However, there is no evidence that Sir Mathew died in Athlone. The inscription reads:

This monument was erected for the rightful worshipfull Sir Mathew de Renzi Knight: Who departed this life on 29th August 1634: Beinge of the age of 57 years. Born at Cullen [sic] in Germany: and descended from that famous and renowned warrior Cieorge Castriott Als Scanderbege (who in the Christian Warre fought 52 battailes with great conquest and honour against the great Turke). He was a great traveller and general linguist: and kept correspondency with most nations in many weighty affairs: and in three years gave great pfection to his nation by composinge a grammar dictionary and chronicle in the Irish tongue and in accompts most expert and exceedinge all others to his great applause. This work was accomplished by his sonn Mathew de Renzi Esqr. August 29 1635.

Brendan Ryan is a retired school teacher.

Clonony Castle, Co. Offaly.

Location – The castle is on the R357, not far from Clonmacnoise.
OS: N 052 216 (map 47)
Longitude: 7° 55′ 19.55″ W
Latitude: 53° 14′ 41.17″ N
See map at the bottom of the page.
Description and History – This well preserved tower house is a perfect example of this style of castle. Standing at roughly 15m in height the castle has all the basic features of a tower house such as; machicolation, murder hole, base batter, mural passages, spiral staircase, gun-loops and bawn.  The first floor has collapsed but has been replaced in recent restoration works. According to the Archaeological Inventory of County Offaly the spiral staircase has partially collapsed preventing access to the upper floors. However, according to the present owner, these stairs were deliberately destroyed to prevent people accessing the castle when it was derelict. This is certainly a case of ‘state sponsored vandalism’ in Ireland which has happened all too often.  This castle also boasts a wonderful barrel vaulted ceiling making up the second floor which has been very well restored.
The history of this castle is equally as interesting as the building itself.  It was built by the MacCoughlan clan the early 16th century and was the first place in Ireland to practice musketry but was then ceded to Henry VIII in early 17th century.  The castle passed into the hands of the Boleyn family.  It was given as a gift to Thomas Boleyn by Henry as he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn.  In fact, cousins of Anne are buried in the grounds underneath a hawthorn three.  The writing on the stone has eroded away but may still be recovered with a rubbing.  Luckily this castle escaped the campaign of Cromwell and is in relatively good condition. The castle did become ruined but the excellent renovation work of the present owner is slowly restoring this castle to its former glory.
Difficulty – This site is not difficult to find as on the side of the road on the R357, not far from Clonmacnoise. There is no official parking here so you will have to park on the grass verge. The castle is privately owned and is a residence so always knock on the door and don’t barge in.
For more castles, click here.
For more sites in Co. Offaly, click here.
The impressive gateway entrance. You can see above the arch where the coat of arms would have been located. The owner informed me that it was removed by the previous owners and is still in tact somewhere.
Machicolation above the bawn wall entrance.
The bawn entrance from the inside.
The Boelyn gravestone.
Inside the renovated ground floor.
The owner has painstakingly found antiques to give the castle an authentic feel.
The restored first floor level.
One of the mural passages.
Looking out of one of the gun-loops.
Looking down on the second floor. The castle is missing its roof.

Ötzi the 5,300-Year-Old Iceman has 61 Tattoos

photo credit: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Eurac/Samadelli/Staschitz

February 3, 2015 | by Janet Fang

Researchers have mapped all 61 tattoos of Ötzi, the 5,300-year-old glacier mummy discovered by hikers in the Ötztal Alps near the Italian-Austrian border in 1991.

Previous studies have already detected fifty or so tattoos, but because they’re difficult to spot—since his skin has darkened over time—researchers haven’t agreed on the final count. Now, an Italian team led by Marco Samadelli of EURAC Research has turned to a non-invasive imaging technique, borrowed from the art world, that can capture light at different wavelengths, ranging from infrared to the ultraviolet. Their technique revealed never-before-seen tattoos.

The 45-year-old male’s 61 tattoos, some of the world’s most ancient examples, take on the form of crosses (or plus signs) and groupings of parallel lines that look like tallies of two to four. They’re all black, and some were as long as four centimeters. Unlike modern tattooing methods that use needles, these were made by rubbing charcoal into fine incisions.

The tattoos were divided into 19 groups across his body, including groups of lines to the left and right of the spinal column, the left calf, the right instep, on the inner and outer ankle joint, and on the chest at the height of the lowermost right rib. (This last one is the newest one discovered.) Two lines lie across his left wrist, and a cross appears on the back of his right knee and next to the left Achilles tendon.

Furthermore, many of his tattoos are located on parts (such as the lower back and joints) that may have caused him pain due to degeneration or disease—suggesting how the tattoos may have been therapeutic, and not symbolic.

“Many people think that it was a kind of treatment because most of the tattoos are very close to areas where he probably suffered from pain,” study co-author Albert Zink of EURAC Research tells Live Science. And many of these inked spots even seem to correspond to skin acupuncture lines, the consequence of a form of healing that originated in Asia thousands of years after Ötzi’s time.

A few years ago, researchers sequenced Ötzi’s genome and found that he had O-type blood and was lactose intolerant. Then, last summer, a team analyzing the non-human sequences on the remains found evidence of an oral pathogen involved in gum disease. Additionally, his arteries were hardened, he had healed rib fractures, a cyst-like growth on his toe, and based on his fingernails, his immune system had been subjected to multiple attacks of severe stress. He’s believed to have died from an arrowhead wound in his left shoulder.

Ötzi is housed at the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Italy. The findings were published in Journal of Cultural Heritage last week.

Images: South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology/Eurac/Samadelli/Staschitz (top), South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology (middle), EURAC/M.Samadelli/M.Melis (bottom)

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What do we know about the Schola Armaturarum?

Predictably there has been a lot of hysteria in the media about yesterday’s collapse of the Schola Armaturarum, including calls for the privatisation of the archaeological site of Pompeii, and accusations of official neglect. The following are just a few of the reports that have appeared:

NY Times: Pompeii Collapse Draws Charges of Official Neglect
La Repubblica: An interview with ex-Superintendent of Pompeii, Pier Giovanni Guzzo (audio in Italian, with completely irrelevant video) and before and after photos.
BBC News: House of the Gladiators collapses in Pompeii (with video)
ANSA: Pompei: Bondi, se responsabile lascerei
NY Daily News: Ancient Pompeii gladiators’ locker room collapses; Italians angered by neglect of Roman ruins
The Telegraph: Pompeii ruin collapses amid claims site mismanaged

There are many, many others. Apparently some commentators have even been using the collapse to justify private collections (since, it is argued, the Italian authorities can’t look after their heritage themselves). And this illustrates nicely how the collapse is being milked for political purposes of all sorts.

But I don’t want to get on my soapbox about this (really!), except to say that the job of conservation at Pompeii is an endless battle and that I believe the people who work there do their best with the resources they have.

Instead I want to focus on the Schola Armaturarum and its excavation. Eighteen months ago Francesca Tronchin posted a query about recent research on this building, and the illustration below.

Illustration of the Schola Armaturarum in Spinazzola’s 1953 publication of the Via dell’ Abbondanza

Rereading this – and reading all the newspaper reports about the collapse – got me thinking about how little I know about this particular structure. And so I want to suggest that we do a bit of collective research and information gathering about it. The authorities may reconstruct the building itself, but the frescoes are gone and the only way to study them now will be from archival sources (although in fact the frescoes were already in a terrible condition). I think it would be helpful to collect references to this material now.

The Schola Armaturarum was mainly excavated in 1915 by Vittorio Spinazzola. Its stunning facade frescos led him to partly excavate the building, as can be seen in the plan below (adapted from Dobbins and Foss, World of Pompeii). But his main focus was on excavating the Via dell’ Abbondanza, and it is this that is now causing problems – the unexcavated land behind the northern facades of the streets is collapsing into the street, aided by heavy rainfalls. Other reported collapses at Pompeii in the past two years are from the same general area (House of Julius PolybiusHouse of the Chaste Lovers, and further along the Via dell’Abbondanza in Region III). This needs to be a major focus of future conservation work, or more collapses are inevitable.

I still haven’t been able to answer Francesca’s query about recent bibliography, but the following are studies of the building that I do know about:
  • Spinazzola’s initial report on the building and its frescoes was published in the NSC (and can thus be read on-line) in 1916: Di due grandi trofei dipinti rimessi a luce nella Via dell’ Abbondanza e di una sala decorata di pitture di Vittorie volante, Notizie degli Scavi di Antichita (1916) 429 – 450.  There are some references to the building in the 1915 NSC reports by Matteo della Corte.
  • Spinazzola’s definitive publication of his excavations along the Via dell’Abbondanza: Pompeii Alla Luce Degli Scavi Nuovi Di Via Dell’ Abbondanza (Anni 1910-1923) Rome, 1953′
  • Matteo della Corte discusses the building in his Iuventus: un nuovo aspetta della vita pubblica di Pompei finora inesplorato (1924).
  • Robert Etienne questioned the identification of the building as a Schola Iuventutis in his Daily Life in Ancient Pompeii (1966) 409 – 411.
  • Luciana Jacobelli gives a description of the building and its frescoes in her Gladiators at Pompeii (2003)
  • There is detailed discussion of the building (with some great photos, which can be viewed on the Google Books scan of the book) in Laurentino Garcia y Garcia’s Danni di Guerra a Pompei (Rome, 2006). During WW2 a bomb destroyed the reconstructed roof of the building; it was rebuilt in the 1950s.
According to Jacobelli, the Schola Armaturarum was built after AD 62 on the remains of an earlier building. Della Corte thought it was a kind of school for Pompeii’s youth, but Jacobelli claims that ‘more recently it has been hypothesised that it was a depository of gladiatorial arms’. She doesn’t give details about this recent study – does anyone know what she’s referring to? In the back room there was evidence that wooden cabinets had been fixed to the walls. These are thought to have contained weaponry – but in actual fact only a single ivory handle was found by the excavators. The walls behind the cabinets were painted with Winged Victories bearing  weapons and shields – which is why the building is now connected to gladiators. Personally I think the jury is still out on that one, but this was certainly a distinctive and unusual building which must have had a particular function. Does anyone else have any thoughts or theories?

Heavy rains have provoked landslide at the ancient Italian site of Pompeii, partially collapsing a retaining wall and sending rubble into a garden at the house of Severus. Italian officials on Wednesday said the affected area falls within the “Great Pompeii” joint EU-Italian restoration project and had been already closed to the public. Pompeii, the ancient Roman city encased in volcanic ash near Mount Vesuvius, south of Naples, has suffered numerous collapses of walls and buildings in recent years, often due to rain. The problems have attracted widespread attention to Italy’s difficulties in maintaining its cultural treasures. Pompeii officials said firefighters were assessing the ancient site to determine areas at particular risk for collapse in a bid to shore them up.


Garden of Severus


Garden of Severus


Garden of Severus


Garden of Severus


Garden of Severus


Garden of Severus


Garden of Severus

This image of Regio III, Insula 3 created by Jennifer and Arthur Stephens as part of the Via dell'Abbondanza Project (, shows the Schola Armaturarum (doorway 6, on the right) as it appeared in 2009.  The photomosaic was made by combining multiple digital images and a total station survey of the facade of the city block.  The completed photomosaics are at a scale of 1:25 @ 300 ppi.  The project is documenting all 32 insulae along the 900 meter-long street for the archives in Pompeii and future publication.

This image of Regio III, Insula 3 created by Jennifer and Arthur Stephens as part of the Via dell’Abbondanza Project (, shows the Schola Armaturarum (doorway 6, on the right) as it appeared in 2009. The photomosaic was made by combining multiple digital images and a total station survey of the facade of the city block. The completed photomosaics are at a scale of 1:25 @ 300 ppi. The project is documenting all 32 insulae along the 900 meter-long street for the archives in Pompeii and future publication.

Postcard produced by R&C (which I think is the Richter and Conti studio out of Naples) number 1004 15, Titled “POMPEI – Nuovi scavi. Schola Juventutis” (reverse in English, French and German) dimensions 137mm x 88mm. Postcard has been used but post stamp is illegible, author of message however dates the card as 19th September 1933.

Postcard produced by R&C (which I think is the Richter and Conti studio out of Naples) number 1004 15, Titled “POMPEI – Nuovi scavi. Schola Juventutis” (reverse in English, French and German) dimensions 137mm x 88mm. Postcard has been used but post stamp is illegible, author of message however dates the card as 19th September 1933.

Pompei’s 2,000-year-old House of the Gladiators crumbles to rubble

By DAILY MAIL REPORTER , 7 November 2010A 2,000-year-old house in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, once used by gladiators to train before combat, has collapsed.

The site was closed at the time and nobody was injured, but the collapse highlighted controversy over the poor state of Pompeii, one of Italy’s main tourist attractions.

Many experts have denounced the degradation and decay of the area.

Collapsed: The 2,000-year-old 'House of the Gladiators' in the ruins of ancient Pompeii collapsed on Saturday. Local officials have blamed recent heavy rain

Collapsed: The 2,000-year-old ‘House of the Gladiators’ in the ruins of ancient Pompeii collapsed on Saturday. Local officials have blamed recent heavy rain


Reduced to rubble: Archaeologists have been concerned about the state of the Pompei site for some time

The office of Pompeii’s archaeological superintendent said the collapse happened at around 6am on Saturday.

Attendants opening the site saw the collapse about an hour later.

The house, called by the Latin name “Schola Armaturarum Juventis Pompeiani”, was closed to the public, and could only be seen from the outside, but it was not considered at risk of collapse, officials said.

Situated on Pompeii’s main street, the site was quickly cordoned off.

Relic from the past: Workers inspect the damage at the collapsed 'House of the Gladiators'. The public are not allowed to walk around the ruins but are able to view them from outside along one of the ancient city's main streets

Relic from the past: Workers inspect the damage at the collapsed ‘House of the Gladiators’. The public are not allowed to walk around the ruins but are able to view them from outside along one of the ancient city’s main streets

Former glory: Art historians have complained bitterly that the archaeological sites at Pompeii are in a poor state of repair

Former glory: Art historians have complained bitterly that the archaeological sites at Pompeii are in a poor state of repair

Antonio Varone, director of Pompeii’s excavations, told the Ansa news agency that officials were trying to ‘preserve up to the last fragment of the Schola Armaturarum’.

There was no official word on possible causes. News reports said water infiltration following heavy rains in the past days might be the cause.

The 430 square foot (40 sq m) space was used by gladiators to train before going to fight in a nearby amphitheatre, as well as by other athletes. It was also a storehouse for weapons and armour.

Pompeii was destroyed in AD 79 by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius which killed thousands of people and buried the city in 20ft (6m) of volcanic ash.

But the ash also helped preserve Pompeii’s treasures, providing precious information about what life was like in the ancient world.

The gladiators’ house was believed to have been built near the end of Pompeii’s life. It was partially destroyed during the Second World War, and the roof and some of the walls had been rebuilt.

Culture Minister Sandro Bondi said some frescoes on the lower walls may have been preserved.

Italy has long grappled with its vast cultural and archaeological heritage, amid chronic shortage of funds, negligence and vandalism. Officials have had difficulty preserving Pompeii, which is visited by more than two million people every year.

Only last month, Italy’s most influential paper, Corriere della Sera, ran an editorial headlined ‘The humiliation of Pompeii’ in which it said cement works were damaging the ruins and that the last commissioner had ended his mandate in June.

Mr Bondi called for greater funds for Pompeii, while the opposition was quick to blame the goverment.

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House of the Gladiators collapses in Pompeii

A house in the ancient Roman city of Pompeii has collapsed, raising concerns about Italy’s state support for its archaeological heritage.

The House of the Gladiators was found in ruins when curators came to open the site to visitors early on Saturday.

Partially rebuilt after it sustained damage during World War II, it had not been thought at risk of collapse.

Culture Minister Sandro Bondi said some of the frescos on the house’s lower walls might have survived.

He said that the collapse showed the need for “adequate resources” to preserve Italy’s “immense historic artistic heritage”.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano said it was “a shame for Italy”.

Antonio Varone, director of excavations at the site, said officials were “trying to preserve the last fragments” of the building.

Heavy rains

The house, which is not normally open to the public but can be viewed from the outside, was cordoned off after the collapse.

There was speculation that recent heavy rains might have made the structure unstable.

The house, known as the Schola Armaturarum, was used by gladiators for training before fights in the nearby amphitheatre.

Pompeii was destroyed in AD79 when a volcanic eruption from nearby Mount Vesuvius buried the city in ash. It was not uncovered until the 18th Century.

Tsao Cevoli, president of Italy’s National Association of Archaeologists, called the collapse “an irreparable wound to the world’s most important archaeological site”.

Extra funds were made available two years ago, and special measures put in place, to improve conservation at Pompeii, but critics say the plan was badly managed.

The "House of the Gladiators" lies in ruins, 6 November

A pile of debris marks the spot where the “House of the Gladiators” once stood

A pile of debris marks the spot where the “House of the Gladiators” once stood.

A close ally of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is under pressure to resign after a building collapsed at the 2,000-year-old Pompeii site.

Culture Minister Sandro Bondi faces a vote of no confidence in parliament over the collapse of the “House of the Gladiators” on Saturday in heavy rain.

The opposition accuses the government of letting Pompeii fall into neglect.

Staff at museums, libraries and other institutions plan to strike on Friday over budget cuts to culture.

“With no maintenance and non-existent funds, the whole of Italy is at risk of collapsing” Alessandra Mottola Molfino Our Italy

Mr Bondi, one of three national co-ordinators of Mr Berlusconi’s People of Freedom party, has admitted that more buildings at Pompeii are in danger.

But he added that it would be wrong for him to quit over what he said were long-standing problems at the site.

Mr Berlusconi no longer has a majority in the lower house of the Italian parliament since his former ally Gianfranco Fini formed his own party, Freedom and Future for Italy.

While Mr Fini’s bloc is unlikely to vote against Mr Bondi, it could use the occasion to send a message to Mr Berlusconi, possibly by abstaining.

‘No maintenance’

Italian Culture Minister Sandro Bondi visits Pompeii, 7 November

Culture Minister Sandro Bondi visited Pompeii after the collapse

Pompeii was destroyed in AD79 when a volcanic eruption from nearby Mount Vesuvius buried the city in ash. It was not uncovered until the 18th Century.

The house, known as the Schola Armaturarum, was used by gladiators for training before fights in the nearby amphitheatre.

Tsao Cevoli, president of Italy’s National Association of Archaeologists, called its collapse “an irreparable wound to the world’s most important archaeological site”.

Extra funds were made available two years ago and special measures put in place to improve conservation at Pompeii, but critics say the plan was badly managed.

Italian heritage experts warn that many other monuments, including Bologna’s twin towers, Florence’s Cathedral and Nero’s Golden House in Rome, are also vulnerable to collapse.

“With no maintenance and non-existent funds, the whole of Italy is at risk of collapsing,” Alessandra Mottola Molfino, head of the heritage charity Our Italy, told AFP news agency.

Ashes to ashes: the latter-day ruin of Pompeii

Pompeii, the best-preserved Roman town in the world, still attracts millions of visitors. But its appalling state is a disgrace to Italy, Unesco and European civilisation

At the ticket office at the entrance to Pompeii, the world’s greatest archaeological site, three women, two English and one Australian, are trying to make themselves understood. They have not come to look at the ruins. A few years ago, in a bid to tackle the “crisis” of Pompeii, Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi declared the place a disaster zone and handed over control to a commissario straordinario as if, the archaeologists grumbled, Vesuvius had erupted last week and there was a humanitarian disaster under way. His choice for the job was Renato Profili, who (in the words of one insider) “did not recognise the real problems of the site.” Instead, he concentrated on issues such as the prostitutes and the illegal restaurants on the site’s periphery, and the packs of stray dogs. Profili died last year, but his legacy lives on in the Cave Canem project, which encourages visitors to adopt a dog.

The women at the ticket office have come to do just that. But they speak no Italian and the woman in the ticket office knows little English. There are forms to fill out in triplicate to adopt a dog, and taking the animals out of the country is another matter—no one has a clue what the procedure is.

The fate of Pompeii and its sister site Herculaneum puts Europe’s recent volcanic difficulty into proper perspective. The eruption of Vesuvius in AD79 had been preceded by weeks of earth tremors but the town, with a population of perhaps 20,000, was totally unprepared for the devastation. Pliny the Elder wrote that the eruption was “thrusting… bulging and uncoiling… as if the hot entrails of the earth were being drawn out and dragged towards the heavens.”

Over the following 1,500 years, the existence of the two towns was largely forgotten. Some local plundering seems to have occurred in the middle ages, and Pompeiian frescoes were unearthed in the 1590s, only to be covered over again. It was not until the late 18th century that systematic excavation got underway and people realised the degree to which the towns remained intact. “Many disasters have befallen the world,” Goethe said, “but few which have given posterity such delight… I have seldom seen anything so interesting.” Figures such as Charles, the first Bourbon king of Naples, Napoleon Bonaparte’s sister Caroline, and Mussolini were inspired by the sites, and devoted resources to excavating them. As Unesco’s inspectors said, when placing the sites on its world heritage list in 1997, the towns provide “a complete and vivid picture of society and daily life at a specific moment in the past that is without parallel anywhere in the world.”

But today they are so reduced that it is hard to guess what went on among the ruins. Profili’s dogs ramble around, crapping where they see fit. The great majority of the houses are in such decay that people aren’t allowed to enter them. Broken fences and signboards tell of torpor and indifference. Nearby Herculaneum, where many frescoes and mosaics have been irreparably damaged by rainwater, is an archaeological casualty ward; a team funded by the US billionaire David Packard is fighting to save what it can. Twice officially inaugurated, the site’s museum has never opened to the public.

Pompeii and Herculaneum are where archaeology as a science was born. They draw millions of visitors a year—but their state is a disgrace to Italy, Unesco and European civilisation. Not so long ago, the magic of these sites was still vivid. In 1924, Amedeo Maiuri, an archaeologist, was put in charge of them. He held that position until 1961, devoting superhuman energy to his work. The sites became a key element in Mussolini’s project for restoring national pride in ancient Rome, which in turn ensured a steady flow of funds and visitors.

Herculaneum, less well-known but in some ways more stunning than Pompeii, is Maiuri’s great memorial. The eruption of Vesuvius which buried Pompeii in about three metres of volcanic ash and rock entombed Herculaneum to a depth of more than 20 metres. As a result the plundering of Pompeii’s treasures happened early, while Herculaneum was largely forgotten. The rocky tuff that encased the town was a major challenge and it took heroic determination to remove it and expose its perfectly preserved villas, baths and shops.

Domenico Camardo, lead archaeologist on the Herculaneum Conservation Project, describes the work that went into the liberation of the buried town. While excavators drilled and hammered, masons worked alongside them, hurriedly propping up structures at risk of collapse; then carpenters and restorers dived in to carry out first aid on the decorative features. Once the buildings were safe, carpenters, marble-workers and gardeners took care of the restoration and furnishing of the houses with the aim of reopening them to the public. Maiuri wanted visitors to be able to experience the sites as they were immediately before disaster struck. “They even went so far as to replant the gardens,” Camardo says. “The most important objects found during the excavations were placed on view inside display cases that were built in situ. The houses were preserved in every detail, the furnishings and objects from daily life were put back in place.

“The city became an open-air museum in which the finds were contextualised—not just artistic objects, but also objects illustrating daily life: the walnuts found in a shop; plates with remains of fruit or food. To allow visitors a better view into interior spaces Maiuri chose in many cases not to reconstruct external walls, floor plates or balconies… In this way wall paintings and furnishings of the upper floors could be viewed from below.” Visiting the sites then was an experience as close to time travel as you could get. Today it’s rather different.

Some of the 2m tourists who visit Pompeii annually

Leaving the would-be dog-adopters to wrestle with their problem, I set out for a walk. It is early spring and La Campania is already beginning to warm up: blue sky and a hazy sun. Vesuvius is an innocuous-looking mound to the north. Birds chirrup, a breeze tousles the greenery. The charm of Pompeii is that it is set apart from the modern town, so once you get away from the coaches and the cafés and are swallowed up in the enormous site there is no sense of the 21st century pressing around.

But there is precious little sense of the first century either. There are the cart tracks: the town’s ancient roads are paved with large, roughly flat stones which have clearly been in place from early in its history, because the wheels of carts have incised deep ruts in them. When Pompeii was buried it was already ancient: that’s what the cart tracks tell us more eloquently than anything else. But in other respects the site, about two thirds of which has been excavated, is mute.

Along the main roads leading into the town there is little to detain a visitor. Broken, irregular stone walls open on to cell-like enclosures which must once have been houses or shops, but are now unmarked, uncared-for and featureless. Wooden fences were erected in front of them to keep the curious out, but many have been smashed. The interiors are carpeted in weeds. Larger properties, villas of the town’s grandees, are fronted by steel gates, but most are padlocked. Signposts without signs; tin roofs poking from ancient masonry; locked gates enclosing rampant weeds: they all tell the same story.

Debris and decay at Pompeii

Debris and decay at Pompeii

The plan of the excavations, which is issued with the entrance ticket, lists 72 houses and temples of importance but warns “some buildings may be closed.” This is an understatement: in the centre of the town, where most of the tourism is concentrated, half the listed properties are shut up. There is no indication if any of them might open again.

The tour groups arrive—French, American, German and Japanese—the chirruping of their guides competing with the songs of the birds. Following them around I discover that the guides keep to a tight and repetitive itinerary. They visit the forum, which according to the Blue Guide, is “the most perfect example known of a Roman central square.” Then the House of the Faun with its eponymous statue (a copy), plus its fabulous mosaic of Alexander the Great challenging the Persians (likewise, a copy) and its garden. They tramp around the House of the Little Fountain and the House of Pansa, they admire the mosaic (another copy) of the famous cave canem sign in front of the House of the Tragic Poet, though the house itself is locked. And they hike up the Via Consolare to see the most famous house on the site, the Villa of the Mysteries, with its stunning frescoes of Bacchanalian rites.

And if the majority of what Pompeii theoretically has to offer is locked and off limits, the tourists’ route helps explain why. More than 2m visitors pass through Pompeii every year, and because so few of the important features are open, most only pass through the listed houses and a few others. The wear and tear is tremendous. The frescoes, the principal attraction of the houses that are open, are exposed to the weather and only protected from visitors by ropes. There are a few guards on the site, but none were on duty in those houses during my visit. There is nothing to deter tourists from chipping off a fragment of fresco as a souvenir.

So the same entropic process that has already led to the closure of the great majority of large homes will inevitably overtake the popular houses too. Pompeii will become less and less interesting, less and less extraordinary, year by year.

The scale of the town, and the fact that its ancient fabric has not been buried under later development, means that Pompeii remains magically evocative. But in the 50 years since Maiuri hung up his trowel, the authorities have done little to help visitors appreciate it. Pompeii gives an impression of yawning vacancy. Nearly all of its treasures, statues, frescoes and the bodies of its inhabitants, were long ago carted off to the National Archaeological Museum in Naples—where half the galleries are now closed because of a funding crisis.

Since 1997, both sites have been allowed to keep the profits from ticket sales, around €20m (£17.5m) a year, instead of being dependent on the ministry of culture. Some of the gate money has been ploughed into ambitious refurbishment works, including Pompeii’s House of the Chaste Lovers, which has just been unveiled. But any commanding sense of what must be done to save the sites, a vision to rank with Maiuri’s, is still strikingly missing. In tacit recognition of that fact, Italy’s minister of culture, Sandro Bondi, has just announced plans to set up a public-cum-private foundation to run them.

Why have the sites been allowed to deteriorate so badly? Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, superintendent of the sites since 1994, blames the government. “There was very little money available,” he said, “and that meant only emergency work could be carried out. Financial autonomy has granted a more suitable level of funding, but it is still much less than what is required.”

But impecuniousness is only part of the story. Both sites are located in areas notorious for organised crime, with rackets run by the Camorra, the Naples mafia, within spitting distance of the front gates. The port of Ercolano, the suburb of Naples in which Herculaneum sits, is said to be a focal point for the Camorra-run drugs trade. Up until the 19th century, Ercolano was a seaside resort for grandees, but today the old villas are hemmed in by squalor. Gang shootings are common on the streets.

More significant are the blunders of officialdom: a succession of mistakes and misfortunes, local and international, have conspired to turn Maiuri’s masterpiece into a disaster. Thanks to David Packard, we now know what went wrong.

Archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, who runs a never-ending restoration project

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, who runs a never-ending restoration project

Ten years ago Packard, a philanthropist with an interest in classics (and the eldest son of the co-founder of Hewlett-Packard), decided to try to save Herculaneum. He recruited a team of specialists led by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill, then professor of archaeology at Reading University. Wallace-Hadrill and his colleagues persuaded Guzzo that an infusion of private money and independent expertise could haul Herculaneum back from the brink. Nearly ten years and €15m later, work is still going on.

Jane Thompson, project manager for the Herculaneum Conservation Project, spelled out in a recent paper the mess the team found. “By the late 1990s,” she wrote, “the site was in a state of such serious neglect that it began to attract international attention. The absence of regular maintenance had brought about a serious and widespread state of disrepair and decay… compounded by the lack of much-needed remedial work on the ancient city’s infrastructure and the fact that previous restoration interventions were themselves aging… The very closure of houses… brought about an acceleration in the deterioration process; with no one visiting them their decay escalated unchecked, pigeons installed themselves and the houses became too unsafe to access.” The result was that the area open to the public “has gradually reduced down to roughly a third of the area that was open to the public 40 years ago. In parallel, the number of visitors has more or less tripled… with consequential wear and tear.”

Wallace-Hadrill, now master of Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, is still in charge of Packard’s work on the site and visits twice a month. His English reserve melted long ago in the Campania sunshine and his passion for Herculaneum is infectious. He explained why the very richness of the Pompeii sites makes their conservation a mind-boggling challenge.

“There is an assumption that by digging stuff up you have saved it,” he says. “Except you haven’t. It’s stable when it’s underground. But the moment you excavate you start the clock again. It comes back to life which means it starts dying. I remember being struck at Pompeii by the fact that you’ve got almost as much human activity today on site with the tourists as there was in antiquity. Inevitably you have a problem, and it’s a generalised problem for all archaeology. The 19th and 20th centuries were the heroic ages for picking up loads of stuff and feeling that you’d rediscovered the past—and not thinking about the problems of keeping it going. But because Pompeii and Herculaneum are better preserved, thanks to the volcano, there is more to lose. And this is compounded by the acute problems of the local management.”

These were the problems that began after the departure of Amedeo Maiuri. Maiuri was a human hurricane, but when he retired in 1961 the wind dropped away. As so often in Italy, power resided not in the position or institution but the person. Once he was gone, the impetus went with him. The time was ripe for consolidation, but there is nothing glamorous about that as a career. And routine maintenance, as anyone who has lived in Italy knows, goes against the national grain.

Then there were the problems beyond the management’s control. Over the years, the local artisans who had kept the site ticking over were forced out when new European health and safety standards deemed their workshops substandard. Their work was outsourced to firms with no special loyalty to the sites, and the informal correcting of small problems reduced. When the problems on the sites became more daunting, what Jane Thompson calls “the cripplingly procedure-heavy administrative machine,” which requires three years of paperwork between three public organisations just to validate a period of sick leave, proved inadequate to the task.

The result was the shambles that Wallace-Hadrill and his team found in 2001. The condition of the many flat roofs that had been built over the ancient houses was one of the more startling examples. “Flat roofs are a neat solution for protecting houses that have lost their roofs,” he said, “but if you don’t maintain them the drain on the roof gets blocked, so gradually it turns into a tank of mulch. Plants grow in this wet mulch and their roots grow through the asphalt until the roof is completely destroyed. Then you get water running in down the frescoes… We’ve had dozens of examples of this.”

The dire state of the site forced Wallace-Hadrill and his team to change their strategy radically. “We initially came in and said we would do a big restoration project on one corner of the site and do it really well. But we became aware that if this took five years, it would take us 30 years to do the entire site. So we shifted from doing a definitive job in one place to addressing lots of basic problems right across the site.”

The result is ironic: while the state-employed managers use the box-office takings to embark on flashy makeovers—a new ticket office with fountains, a muscular-looking bridge—the American mogul’s millions have been spent on fixing the roofs, unplugging the drains and “trying to create a sort of worksheet,” as Wallace-Hadrill puts it, so the boring but vital everyday tasks get done when his team pulls out in the near future.

After spending all that money, it sounds like a pretty frail sort of legacy. On the other side of the scales, there are politicians whose idea of solving the problem is to send in officials obsessed with prostitutes and stray dogs.

No one I spoke to backed my personal theory that the gangsters have it in for Pompeii: the money, I was told, is small beer for them, and all those foreigners hanging around make them queasy. So that’s one problem we can cross off the list—until a tour bus gets caught in the crossfire.

Can’t UNESCO save Pompeii?


Pompeii and Herculaneum have been listed as Unesco World Heritage Sites since 1997. So why isn’t the world’s culture policeman keeping the world’s most important Roman sites in order?

In fact, Unesco’s role in identifying and protecting world heritage is strictly advisory. Sites which have deteriorated gravely since being listed may be put on a danger list, and if deterioration continues, they may lose their listing altogether. But, as Pompeii was already in an appalling state when it obtained its listing, it is unlikely to lose its status.

Unesco depends largely on information provided by state authorities—so for Pompeii’s entry in the world heritage website, the “threat” box is blank. “World heritage site values have been maintained,” it asserts baldly. A description of work underway reads: “Superintendence is progressively replacing reinforced concrete… with proper stuff compatible with ancient structures and easily reversible. All these works have been improving the conditions of integrity of the archeological [sic] properties also raising the monuments’ level of authenticity.” Regarding management, it simply states, “The current management system is highly effective.”

Many countries eagerly seek world heritage status for their sites, seeing it as a way of creating interest in their cultural treasures and increasing tourism. But Italy is so well-endowed culturally—it has 44 sites, more than any other country—that a Unesco listing matters far less, which helps explain why Pompeii and Herculaneum applied so late. For the grandees of Italy’s culture ministry, which has more heritage than it knows what to do with, the listing was an afterthought.

If Unesco can’t help, a private donor is a potential answer. David Packard has spent €15m restoring Herculaneum; Pompeii is more than twice as big so perhaps €40m would bring it to the same point of repair. With good housekeeping, ongoing maintenance could be funded with the gate receipts.

Pompeii wall collapses amid heavy rain

Pompeii wall collapses amid heavy rain

The ancient city of Pompeii was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79AD. Pompeii photo: Shutterstock

Published: 05 Feb 2015 10:09 GMT+01:00

The wall in the Garden of Severus suffered a partial collapse after days of rainfall in southern Italy, Pompeii’s superintendency said on Wednesday.

The area was sealed off to visitors at the time and the discovery was made by staff at the ancient site.

The Garden of Severus is already part of the Great Pompeii Project, a multi-million euro fund from the EU and Italian government to protect the area.

An agreement is also being set up with the fire service to intervene in inaccessible parts of Pompeii which are at risk, the superintendency said.

The incident at the Garden of Severus is just the latest in a series of collapses at Pompeii, which was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 79AD.

Culture Minister Dario Franceschini last March promised to unblock €2 million in restoration funds , after the Temple of Venus and Pompeii walls were damaged by rainfall.

Despite the site winning funding to the tune of €105 million, the Italian authorities have been criticized for being woefully slow in implementing restoration plans.

Unesco has also weighed into the debate, threatening in 2013 to scrap Pompeii from its prestigious World Heritage list if measures were not taken to save the ancient site.

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