Tuesday, June 9, 2009

A Day in Pompeii

Welcome to the 100th post on Die Wanderwege und Die Beobachtungen. That’s a lot of stuff about Europe, and there’s so much more to tell. Since getting back from my Italian adventures with Josh, I explored more of the Rhineland, saw Leipzig and Dresden, then took off for a week of wandering through the famous fossil localities of Germany. I have many, many stories yet to relate. Hopefully you still have the patience and interest to hear about them. If not, thanks for checking in every now and then and enjoying some more of my “Wanderings and Observations.” - Matt

The photo album of Pompeii. The first half is from the archeological site and the second half is from the National Archaeological Museum where they keep all the delicate stuff they’ve found in Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Sitting in Latin Class with my textbook “Ecce Romani” (Look, Romans!) in front of me, I would often drift from the exercises and look at the pictures. Everything seemed to come from Pompeii. Statues, mosaics, artifacts. It’s impossible to imagine how little we would know about life as an ancient Roman without this city.
On one terrible day in 79 A.D. the nearby Mt. Vesuvius erupted for the first time in 1,200 years and the city was buried in ash and mud from landslides that rocketed down the mountain faster than the speed of sound. In 1738 a worker unearthed artifacts from Herculaneum and later excavations expanded to Pompeii. It was a revelation. The art was exquisite and the technology shockingly advanced. The city was carefully planned and managed. Everyone fell in love with the ancient world leading to Neoclassicism (the era of Empire waists and Revolutionary thought). I fell in love with it a little later.

Looking at the images in Ecce Romani, I would wonder when I would get to the site. I knew I would, it was just a mater of when. Well, turns out May 2009 was the time to dust off the Latin skills to marvel at the city frozen in one terrible moment.

We had a confusing, stilted conversation at the tourism office in Naples about buying tickets at the train station or at the site. We still aren’t sure we got a good deal, but I am relieved to this day that I was able to extract myself from the conversation. The train was populated by drunks, people yelling at the wall, and dozens of tourists. We all nervously watched each platform go by and finally piled off, a hoard wielding digital cameras and sun block ready to sack the city.

Before going to Pompeii, I never really understood what it meant to say an entire city was buried. Only a fraction of the city is exposed to the air, but it’s a massive place packed with winding alleys and hundreds of homes and businesses. It’s a city and you can actually get lost. This is why it was pretty inconvenient that the ticket office was out of maps. Figures.

Roughly our first hour in Pompeii was spent stumbling upon significant sites – the theater, the temple of Ceres, the 5th century Greek temple – without having a clue what would come next. There’s a certain thrill in such pure exploration, though the thrill is reduced slightly by also stumbling upon a half-dozen tour groups trying to check out the flushing toilets of Pompeii.

It’s also a problem when you’re not sure if you’re moving through the city as efficiently as you could if you had any idea where you were. But we dealt and explored.

People lived in Pompeii for centuries, starting with the Italian Oscans, then Eutruscans, then Greek settlers and later Romans. The city experienced a couple of fires and earthquakes, and was still trying to recover from the damage caused by a massive earthquake in 62 (no apostrophe necessary). Then in 79 the city was frozen in time.

Most Roman and Greek ruins require a lot of imagination. Most buildings left to their own devices have a way of giving way to the persuasive powers of erosion. Columns, roofs, and streets need to be reconstructed to even begin imagining what “real life” was like. Not necessary on these streets. The cobbles stones have worn ruts from hundreds of passing ox carts. The food stalls are equipped with jars for oil and wine. The enclosed entry hall opens to the courtyard. It’s incredibly beautiful and so quiet. Despite tour groups, it was easy to find a corner of the city to imagine toga-clad patricians coming home from work or hanging out at the bathes.

The amphitheater could still echo with the voices of thousands, and the marketplace resound with screaming hawkers. The vibrancy of the scene is quickly undercut by a visit to the excavation warehouse where thousands of amphora are piled, and the plaster casts of victims are on display.

When the city was being excavated, the workers kept discovering inexplicable bubbles in the ash. Then someone decided to pour plaster into the cavities. What emerged were ghostly forms of people finally succumbing to the toxic fumes spewed by Vesuvius. It’s horrifying, but makes the whole city weirdly personal. Instead of bones, you see a full form. You can imagine what the person looked like in life and a conversation begins about the problems of the Empire and the hustle of every day life. After walking through the city - with rocks marking pedestrian zones, and lead pipes making water available at every intersection - I realized I have more in common with a 1st century Pompeiian than I do a 13th century German. In many ways we’ve taken 2,000 years to get back to where we were at the peaceful peak of the Pax Romana.

Josh and I continued to explore the wide main avenues and marvel at the size of the city, but eventually had to grab a lemon ice, and head back to the city to see the artistic treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum (the sister-city of Pompeii and a resort town where wealthy Romans kept summer villas away from the crowds). It was a bit of a shock to the system to emerge from the train station to the chaos of Naples, but we muscled through and found the Pepto-Bismol-Pink Archeological Museum.

We bought our tickets, found the lockers, and started to put our stuff away. A dull roar built behind us. As I turned the key, the storm broke and about 50 sixth-graders swarmed in our direction. We were swamped, fighting through a human fortress of BO and braces. When we emerged on the other side I realized I was allowed to bring my camera along. Josh looked horrified, like he would never see me alive again as I dove back into the hoard to reopen the locker.

The rest of our visit was punctuated by sudden escapes from these huge gaggles of Italian school-children who were just as affected by the anatomical requisites of nudity as American kids. Somehow I thought Italian kids, raised with nudity in ads and on TV really wouldn’t care. They do.

The museum housed literally tons of incredible statuary including towering Caesars and laughing fauns. The most impressive was the Farnese Bull. The sculpture shows the larger-than-life sons of Antiope tying Dirce to a charging bull after she insulted their mother (a scene replicated in the Roman Ampitheaters with captured women and Christians tied to a charging, angry bull). It’s the largest sculpture ever recovered from the ancient world (except for the Egyptian monothiths I guess) and it’s all carved from a single block of marble. The muscles tense, and the bull twists. Like I said, incredible.

Then came the mosaics. On every wall were minutely detailed images composed entirely of rice to penny-sized tiles showing shaded actors dragging out masks, lions attacking leopards, and recognizable fish in still-life.

In the dry world of the Mediterranean, these mosaics were the best way to create beautiful pictures that wouldn’t fade. The largest and most famous depicts Alexander the Great on a life-size scale, routing the Persians.

The mosaic uses realistic expressions, perspective, and foreshortening, techniques lost after the fall of Rome, not to be reborn until the aptly named Renaissance. Until that moment I never realized how many artistic skills were lost when the barbarians came knocking and plundering.

In the next room the frescos were exercises in balanced composition and geometric depth. Figures have realistic proportions and shading, things Giotto became famous for dragging out of the closet again in the 15th century.

The museum also housed artifacts such as charred tablets detailing the day of a slave family’s release from bondage.

Behind a curtain was displayed a terrifying tableau of skeletons, victims of the Herculaneum burial. Nearby was “The Secret Room.”

The citizens of 18th century Europe were a little…prudish. They didn’t let their wrists see the light of day, let alone their necks. Imagine the workman’s surprise when he starts uncovering the frescos, mosaics, and statues that adorned the city’s brothels, bachelor villas, and temples to Venus. In order to protect 18th century citizens, especially women, from the ribald objects, the Secret Room was created and survives to this day (though women can go in to gawk now).

At peak times you actually need to get an special ticket and entry time to view Pan getting frisky with a goat and prostitutes showing why they get paid to do what they do. The whole process seemed a little…dirty, like walking into a neon-lit strip joint, or an dark alley peepshow (not that I’ve done either of these things). You get your ticket and everyone in the museum sees you going in. One kid really wanted to follow us. He was roughly eleven and the guards had to keep chasing him from the doorway. I don’t know what I would have done with these images in my head at that age. At the same time I feel like the objects would lose some of their seediness if they were displayed with the rest of the art instead of artificially aggregated thanks to the straight-laced tastes of 18th century Italians and Frenchmen.

After a final swing past the mosaics, we went back into the streets for our last night in Naples. We sipped Italian sodas and watched vehicles run down pedestrians. We walked along the bay and found a small pizza place near a fortress that once protected the harbor. Drinking wine and later cocktails while getting into a heated argument over the merits of Titanic the Musical we said goodnight to the city that tried so hard to kill us. Now it was Rome’s turn. Do you know which road leads there?

The photos of the site and the artifacts, sans tour groups, school children, and sunburn!

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