Conservation workers at the long-neglected Roman city of Pompeii began a 105-million euro ($142-million) makeover partly funded by the EU on Wednesday, a day after former site managers were put under investigation for corruption.
The project, which is being funded to the tune of 41.8 million euros from the European Union and is to be completed by 2015, is seen as crucial for the survival of Pompeii after a series of collapses at the 44-hectare site in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius.
The giant erupting volcano devastated Pompeii nearly 2,000 years ago in 79 AD but the ash and rock helped preserve many buildings almost in their original state, as well as enveloping the curled-up corpses of victims of the disaster.
The hugely popular site near Naples has come to symbolise the decades of mismanagement of many of Italy's cultural treasures, as well as the fallout from recent austerity cuts in budgets for culture.
The repairs are aimed at reducing the risk of exposure to the elements, reinforcing the ancient Roman buildings, restoring Pompeii's famous frescoes and increasing video surveillance at the site where security has been lax for many years.
The work begun on Wednesday was on two ancient Roman homes -- one known as the Criptoportico and the other as the Casa dei Dioscuri, one of the most finely decorated buildings in the ruins.
"It's a first small step to revamp the whole area," said European Regional Policy Commissioner Johannes Hahn, who inaugurated the project along with Italy's interior, culture and regional policy ministers.
"It is absolutely necessary that we have a programme to revamp cultural sites in Italy. It is also a huge business economic opportunity," he said.
Hahn stressed it would be carried out with "full transparency" after a series of scandals at Pompeii.
Interior Minister Annamaria Cancellieri said: "This is a major challenge and I hope we will win."
A small group of local vendors and workers, who say they have been particularly hard hit by the slump in tourism revenues, protested outside the ceremony saying they were "the real ghosts of Pompeii".
On the eve of the opening, Italian police said they were investigating former site director Marcello Fiori, appointed by then prime minister Silvio Berlusconi in 2009, for alleged abuse of office.
Luigi D'Amora, a former restoration supervisor, was also accused of defrauding the state.
Meanwhile a former contractor, Annamaria Caccavo, was placed under house arrest for inflating costs.
One contract priced by Caccavo at 449,882 euros ended up costing the state 4.84 million euros, prosecutors said in court documents.
The works "were not essential" for preserving Pompeii and were geared towards holding stage performances in the ruins of the ancient city.
The latest renovations will be managed by a "steering committee" with Italian government ministries and European Union representatives to ensure that the funds are not misspent.
"We will be very strict on the timetable," Fabrizio Barca, Italy's minister for territorial cohesion, who oversees regional spending, said earlier.
The "Grand Pompeii Project" will also improve facilities for visitors and the European Commission estimates tourist numbers could increase from around 2.3 million a year to 2.6 million by 2017.
Unveiling the plans last year, Prime Minister Mario Monti said it showed the need for "courage and strength" to carry out complex projects in southern Italy which has long been plagued by under-investment and high corruption.
Pompeii, a UNESCO World Heritage site, provides a snapshot of daily life in Roman times and includes such gems as the famous Villa of Mysteries, which is decorated with frescos that appear to show a woman's initiation ceremony into a cult.