Pompeii : A Two Thousand Year Journey

Trip Start May 31, 2006
Trip End Ongoing

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Sunday, March 25, 2007

Once upon a time, in a land not too far away, a city flourished.  It flourished in such a way that its people were rich and content and the city was known far and wide for its beauty, opulence and modernity, and it was envied by all. The people enjoyed the blue tranquility of the seaside and the frosted peaks of the nearby mountains. But one day one of those mountains, the nearest one, turned into an angry god who rumbled and roared with rage, vomiting the fires of Hades unto the pristine stone streets of this unspoiled city.  The thick blazing smoke had a life of its own and engulfed everything and everyone, and as the scorching fires disintegrated the flesh of the once blissful people their last thoughts were: "whatever have we done to provoke this wrath?"
It's almost unimaginable that such a place ever existed and that such a fate fell upon it.  But more than 2 thousand years later anyone who's heard the stories will know that such a city did exist.  Preserved like no other place of antiquity, and a true feast for the senses, the ruins of Pompeii were waiting for us.  
We woke up at 4:30am for the 4 hour drive to the Bay of Naples, one of the best archaeological sites in all of Italy. As our long car trip came close to its end we recognized Mount Vesuvius looming dark and powerful above Naples and all the surrounding towns.  It was easy to see how this ancient volcano was regarded by Romans as sacred. 
It had been raining all morning and the sky was still a little dirty with rain clouds but the sun was starting to peer out as we reached the gates of Pompeii. I was surprised that we were not offered audio guides or that there weren't any guided tours organizes by the site. I was a little disappointed when all we were given was just a map; a little poor for a place so full of information and details to be explained.  Nonetheless, the sun started shining bright now and so we entered Pompeii eager to start exploring.  
It was so unreal to be standing in the Theatre Foyer: the roof was missing and so was the floor, but we could still distinguish the form and function by the peristyle columns, impeccably preserved, with their elegant volutes and acanthus leaves. Then a small Odeon, arranged in semicircular stone terraces serving as seats overlooking a centre of exquisite marbles of rose and teal which still had as much color and shine as they did in antiquity.  The most important seats were in the front and made of white marble held up by depictions of the god Atlas and stone griffins. 
We came upon the main avenue of Pompeii, Via dell'Abbondanza or the "street of abundance" which clearly was the most transited because amazingly enough it had ruts worn into the stones by the wheels of the carriages and chariots.  There were large stepping stones in the intersections for pedestrians to cross the roads, especially designed for floods.  Also small white stones randomly imbedded in between the larger stones which allowed the city people to see the road after dark.  Ingenious. 
Via dell'Abbondanza ran right past the forum so it was lined with shops, or thermopolum, where we could clearly see the masonry counters where the food to sell was kept in large terra cotta vessels which were probably heated by a hearth underneath.  The Roman version of fast food.
As the sun rose in the sky so did the temperature, and the moisture from the early rain glistened in the slabs of smooth stone in the streets of Pompeii.   In every important intersection there was a fountain, now empty, with different motifs on the sprouts: faces of men, lions, bears and even a rounded water vase.  Only the extremely wealthy and luxurious houses in Pompeii had indoor plumbing so most people would have to recur to these public fountains which sometimes overflowed and ran downhill on the streets. 
I lingered behind a tour guide who was explaining that Pompeii was a prestigious business center and resort area for the rich and famous of Rome.  Wealthy families and high political officials escaped from the bustling streets of Rome and came to Pompeii, which also made it a very snooty and pretentious city.  All in all, the 20,000 people (only 60% were wealthy, the rest were slaves) came to Pompeii to have a good time and show themselves off.
I walked deep in thought thinking about Pompeiian snobbiness and glamour until I stumbled upon a fresco of a man with a giant penis.  I had heard of a Roman cult to the phallus, more specifically to the rustic god Priapus who was always depicted with an enormous penis.  In this particular fresco, which was situated in the entrance of a spectacular domus, he is weighing his ermmm....manhood against a bag of money, and yes, his phallus is heavier. As I heard the guide say, Priapus was a fertility god, protector of male genitalia. Roman men must've been quite insecure about their penises to come up with a protector for their genitalia.....the ancient tiny-penis syndrome. 
In this suburban Roman villa, the House of The Vetti, the depiction of Priapus was there to symbolize the abundance within.  And abundant it was indeed!  There was a gate closing off our passage but we could peer inside, past the vestibulum, or the entrance hallway. On the floor of the vestibule there was a white and black mosaic of an angry dog warning thieves to "beware the dog" with the Latin inscription "cave canum".  
Following the vestibule was the atrium, an open and airy room designed to receive guests or clients.  This room was usually lavishly decorated with bright frescoes depicting colorful patterns and motifs like baby cupids, mythological beasts, vegetative designs and floral garlands. In the center of the atrium was a shallow pool of marble called the impluvium which was used to collect the rain water that fell from the opening in the roof (compluvium) all of which made a very attractive chamber. 
We continue to walk in and out other houses, although the most important ones were closed which made me furious because it meant that the most beautiful frescoes and courtyards were out of sight.  Nonetheless we walked into the gardens, some of which had ponds and pools with bronze statues of animals and gods.  There were perfect hedges of wild Rosemary and Lavender which, together with the moisture of the earth, scented the air with a perfume that in my memory will always be Pompeian.  Orange blossoms and lemon trees, small thickets of fresh mint, tall cypresses and pine trees all grew wildly in these gardens.  So it's true what they say about volcanic soil: it's more fertile that any other.  Interesting how something so destructive can later yield so much life. 
We finally reached the centre of Pompeii: the forum.  This was the open heart of the city, where business, religious, administrative and social events took place. It was a huge open space surrounded by 95 great marble columns and floors, some of which have been removed or lost.  The temples of Fortuna Augusta, Jupiter, Apollo and Vespasian flanked either side of the forum with exquisite white marble altars and stairs.

Then there was the basilica, where justice was administered but also important business and commercial meetings took place. The Wall Street of Pompeii.  Graffiti has been found on the walls inside of this building covering an assortment of subjects ranging from witty, to political, to risqué.  
The thermal baths were also located in the forum, so that relaxed business and social meetings could take place.  More than baths they were spas, as the ingenious plumping and heating system kept the waters hot but there was also pools of cold water, a gym and changing rooms for men and women. 
What city is complete without its own cemetery or Necropolis? Past the Gate of Ercolano and into the Via delle Tombe, the road which led to this place of the dead seemed quiet and more serene, but I guess its because there were hardly any tourists here.  There was a tomb in the shape of a semicircular seat with Latin inscriptions stating that the tomb belonged to the priestess Mamia 
We were distracted all of a sudden by black skies and a light shower. But just when I was thinking "this isn't too bad" it started to pour buckets of water.  We got drenched from head to toe, as if we'd jumped into a swimming pool, in less than a minute.  Not only that but it started hailing too.  Thank god for our umbrellas if not that would hurt a bit. This was a clear indication that the day was coming to an end and after 9 hours of walking our feet begged for a rest too.
We found the car and started our uncomfortable drive back to Lanciano.  Thankfully, Adriano's mom had cleverly brought blankets in the car which we used to cover ourselves after removing our soaked jeans and shoes.  And so began our long uncomfortable ride back.
As I rested my head on Ed's wet shoulder I concluded that Pompeii deserved a second visit, specially considering that most of the main attractions were closed, that we didn't get audio guides, that it rained with Hell's fury and cut the day short. Nonetheless visiting Pompeii had been a dream come true for me so I was more than content.  
As a drifted to and from sleep, I continued to think about the people of Pompeii.  Had their wealth and extravagance, flair and opulence distracted them from the natural disaster which was occurring right in front of their eyes?  Herculaneum, a neighboring fishing town of 5,000 people managed to escape the doom by evacuating the city when they noticed something was not right with Mt Vesuvius. They had 19 hours to do this.  What were the Pompeians doing during this time? They certainly had never seen a volcano erupting before but wouldn't the column of smoke and the storm of fiery lava rocks that befell on them have been enough indication? Could Pompeii have been the real version of biblical Sodom and Gomorra? 
All I know is that without Pompeii being buried under the ash that preserved it so well for centuries, St. Paul's cathedral in London or the White House in Washington wouldn't exist today.  This is because when Pompeii was rediscovered in the 18th century, people were so fascinated by this lost art that architects and artists began to study and apply the morphological language of this Roman city into buildings and the decorative arts.  Women in Napoleon's time even dressed and styled their hair like the women in Pompeii did.  Everything we know today of how Romans lived comes from this doomed city.
So just like the scorching lava that destroyed everything and later served as a cradle for lush new vegetation, the people of Pompeii died so that we could gain their knowledge and experience, and thanks to this, the city still lives on.
Fortuna Huiusque.

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