A Place of Savage and Violent History | Pompeii & Herculaneum

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A shaft of light shines on the floor, the beam borne stronger as it passes through the heated mist of steam rising from the baths, seemingly from the very pores of the room. The voices of the bathers form a low babble, muffled a little in the fog. It’s hard to know what they are talking about, there is so much information, gossip and small talk that passes through here that it blends to form an impossible patchwork of noise, discernible only by the conversants themselves, sitting closely and focussing all their attention on one another to the exclusion of everything else. The beam of light is the nearest thing to a constant in this room, but even it moves about the room, touching on one thing or another as the day progresses. As the light beam proceeds around this chamber, the bathers enter, talk, bathe, and leave, replaced by others once more and over again. The beam fades as day becomes evening, and disappears into the night.

One day the light vanishes. The bathers are now trapped forever, engulfed at the point of death, their entire lives forgotten, but for this moment. A door breached, a wall torn down, perhaps the lucky ones dying in this room quickly, and the unlucky managing to get out, to run, only to be bought down by the inevitable, unconquerable power of it all. Whatever their personal outcome, they are buried here, their traces and pathways gone, their true stories gone with them, their last moment the only moment by which we know them.

Now, in our time, the light is back, shining through the ventilation hole in the roof, the beam arcing across the green tinged room, running over the mosaicked floor, marking time as each day progresses – a daily equinox enlightens once more the 2000 year old hand that painted the frescoes on this wall. These works are now considered more than they ever would have been during their original, first, lifetime.

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In its first life this was a town full of ordinary things – houses, trinkets, walls, rooves, bath houses, gardens, statues, people. They all were nothing, nothing significant beyond any other thing, or wall, or person. But they have found their true value to the world in this their second, unearthed life. We have placed a new value upon them that was only attainable through death, through resurrection. Resurrection is a powerful image and it is through this imagery that we are convinced to look closer, that we are drawn in, drawn to the detail of what life might have been like in this town, in those days. Here we get to see that resurrection – of an unexpected type and with a terrifying prerequisite – is possible for any one of us.

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It is unbelievable as you walk around here that the town was ever covered by mud. It’s now so open, exposed, clean. The sky is blue and clear, and Vesuvius – the culprit – sits guiltily by, in green contrast and feigned innocence, or perhaps malevolent nonchalance. The day is peaceful – hot, with many others about, but peaceful. The walking is hard – the stones that form the streets and paths are round and treacherous. One guidebook said to allow 3 to 4 hours for Pompeii – by the fourth hour we’ve done only the Forum and some of the side streets. As TNS and I conclude our discussions as to whether to extend our visit, we are glared at for blocking someone’s camera lens – my joke suggesting they might prefer a photo of us to one of the ruins behind falls flat, their impatience signifying they too have a lot to get through. There is a lot to see. The sheer cascade of information here can only be appreciated by multiple visits and a level of technical expertise that eludes the casual visitor. It means that one becomes impervious to the detail around you, and so much escapes by without notice. As you habituate, the extraordinary becomes ordinary.

Pompeii amazes for its vastness, for the size and scale of the structures that have been recovered from the mud and ash, but has a certain tidy, clinical aspect to it. Despite the fact that there is still a lot of archaeological work going on, that work tends to be quite hidden. It is presented as a complete town, sitting out here alone, isolated, comprehensive and self-sufficient.

Herculaneum on the other-hand, truly feels like it is being unearthed, as it is extracted from the town of Ercolano built upon it. History is a palimpsest, and nowhere is this more true than Herculaneum/Ercolano, the top layer resembling slightly the layer that it usurps, the lower forming a foundation, a metaphor for the influence ancient Rome has on modern Italy. To look down on Herculaneum, it looks as if an extraction has taken place, the modern torn away to expose the old, an old painting covered by a new. Herculaneum is unparalleled in the archaeological world for the evidence of organic matter within it. Carbonised organic specimens can be seen in the museum at the entrance to the site. These include seeds, the anatomical structures of a wooden fishing boat, chickpeas, onions and a loaf of bread in which the baker’s mark is visible. The difference between the way these preservations have occurred is all due to the particular vagaries of geology, volcanology and the timescales of the immediate eruption. Scientific explanations aside – a 2000 year old bakers mark, that states – ‘Made by Celer, the slave of Quintus Granius Verus’. We are breathing the same air as Celer.

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An archaeologist once said to me that the ruins we can see of all these old, abandoned civilisations are merely the bones; the forum and coliseum in Rome, Agrigento in Sicily, at Mycenae and in Athens, these are the bones of their respective civilisations. In Herculaneum, one see’s the flesh upon those bones, sees the human in the home or tavern, eating their lunch, looking after their children, living. Herculaneum is living and breathing, teeming with people. It is so much more alive than Pompeii, much easier to imagine the life going on around you, and indeed the life swept away. You can feel them, walking in the street beside you.

The Golem is a Jewish mythic, man-like figure fashioned directly from the earth. There is a strong parallel between the Golem and the human ‘remains’ found in Pompeii, which are plaster casts of the cavities left in the ash as the person that once was, dissolved away. These casts describe a void, an absence – they describe a subtraction. In Herculaneum, along what must once have been a beautiful shoreline, the remains are intact skeletons, recognisably human, in poses of fear, agony, supplication, mutual comfort, surrender. To see these skeletons is an affecting experience. Nowhere else are we as close to the people of Imperial Rome than here, in a boat-shed, in what was once a fairly insignificant town in the context of the Empire. A town that – along with Pompeii – has resurrected into something it never truly was.

Looters rediscovered Pompeii quite swiftly after the eruption had ended and the geologic mechanisms had entered their homeostatic idle. They tunnelled into the soft ash and mud covering the town, leaving indicators that particular properties and residences had already been checked for valuables. Some of these ‘looters’ may have been the original inhabitants trying to salvage belongings. In any case, this salvage or looting is thought to have resulted in deaths too, as the weight of the ash above collapsed in on the voids these tunnellers left in their wake. Some of the bodies discovered are thought to belong to latter day tunnellers rather than the original victims of the mountain.

It’s also possible that some of the relics discovered in Pompeii and Herculaneum came from the early looter-salvagers rather than having been abandoned in a mad dash for safety, or at least they were moved from their true context to a new and confusing one. It’s likely that there a number of scenarios where we have ascribed a form or function in an anthropological error. At any rate, much of the ‘stuff’ the looter-salvagers left appears to have had very little value having been abandoned twice, once by the Pompeiians and again by those that followed in their ash and mud covered path. It’s likely too that much else of great value was removed prior to the eruption, as the mountain made its mood increasingly obvious, and many took the opportunity to escape. But in that, we are talking monetary value rather than the contextual value we have gained from these remnants. While many improbable hypotheses have been created over the years, the wealth of riches in terms of visibility into Roman life during the reign of Titus is incalculable.

And there are still some treasures here. I am roused by the Faun frolicking in the atrium of the eponymous house. His verdigris figure casts a perfect shadow across the ground, a dance partner for his unnerving playfulness. But he proves to be a Pompeiian lie. He is a facsimile, the original held – perhaps against his will – in the Museum of Naples. Also removed from this house, considered the richest in Pompeii is the intricate mosaic describing the victory of Alexander the Great over Darius III of Persia at the Battle of Issus.

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Conservation versus restoration versus alternation is a key question. Is it important to preserve the site ‘as is’? If so, should the point of preservation be the day before, or the day after the eruption? Should the site be held as it was when it was reclaimed from the earth?  If that is the case, then we would be faced with so many piles of rubble, as the force of the eruption and ensuing mud slides swept much of the town before it – many of these structures had been knocked down, deconstructed. And again during the Second World War, Pompeii was bombed by the Allies (stray bombs one would hope, the accuracy of the bomb aimers being notoriously bad) and a second death – and restoration – occurred to parts of the town. While we laugh and shudder at the disaster of the Ecce Homo restoration in Spain, we marvel at the friezes in the Villa of the Mysteries for their comparative richness of colour, in stark contrast to the artworks in the rest of the town. But this is because we don’t realise that these too are restorations, admittedly by a more expert hand than the Ecce Homo artist. This is another point of contrast with Herculaneum, that town being full of striking hints of colour. Not great swathes of it, but patches that survived the convulsion. You can see it in the hair of a statue, in the building blocks of the houses, the tiles of the mosaics. You realise that these towns must once have been riotously colourful, perhaps even garish.

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We are done here, surely. We have walked for hours, I can barely walk any further. As the day starts to cool, we come across the anfiteatro, the oldest surviving example of a stone amphitheatre in the Roman world. It offers a place to rest, and to ponder in the relative solitude. When in use, it’s estimated that 20,000 people could squeeze in. Pink Floyd and Elton John have played here. It’s a place of savage and violent history, a more sedate recency, at this moment silence. Trees line the far edge, not enough to offer us any shade. We enjoy the lowering sun for a while, gathering strength for the long walk to the exit.

Our route takes us past the Large Theatre, which we intend to avoid, yet an undertone of activity inside draws us in. The theatre is being prepared for a performance of La Traviatta, which I suspect will be captivating and beautiful. The orchestra are gathering, the strains of their tuning rising up through the theatre as we move around it. Various functionaries ply their way around the theatre, technical setups completed, last minute changes perhaps to account for the wind that is picking up and already seems to be threatening some parts of the set. In various points in the seated areas candles have been placed, which will add to the inherent atmospheric feeling of this place, and bathe it in muted light as night falls. This place is not a dead city, is not a ghost town – the ghosts are being kept company, by a new set of mortals living, working and being entertained within its walls.

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As a final halt, we stop in the Basilica because the light is so good, a kind of Pompeiian solstice as the sun sets and shines through the ruins. The light is dramatic, again the place is nearly empty, the very last of the tourists taking photos as the vague threat of closure comes upon us. Whatever it is now, whatever it was, Pompeii is in a sense a burial ground. I think we have done this place justice, paid it the respect it deserves. There is no possibility to know it all – that requires many visits, and perhaps a lifetimes work. We can only touch upon it, accumulate our own highlights package, walk away with the barest understanding of what happened here both in 79CE and in the two millennia that have since past.

We return to Naples, away from the past, back to the now, forgetting the lessons that should have been learned. We’re exhausted. The lighting in Toledo station is unreal, hyper-real, as are the surfaces and materials used– it feels like a bright, white and blue spaceship, hard, alive. We feel out of place here, projected suddenly from the ancient back into modernity, feeling like we are trailing dust and smoke and dirty air behind us. There is a long, interminable escalator which we would normally bound up but tiredness gets the better of us, and we stand, leaning on the handrail. As we rise to the surface, a young woman gets on the down escalator. She is beautiful, perfectly attired, on her way out for the evening, oblivious.

We are filthy, exhausted, and invisible.


Further reading: Pompeii by Mary Beard




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