Saturday, August 2, 2014

Baking in the Shadow of Vesuvius

The first thing you notice about ancient Pompeii is the buildings are in generally better condition than those of modern Naples. The second, at least for me, is the proximity to Vesuvius. I knew it was close, but visiting in person I feel I could almost throw a rock at the mountain. And Vesuvius isn't a particularly imposing peak. I don't suppose it was even particularly lofty before the historic eruption. The vegetation running up its sides gives it the appearance of pastoral approachability.

The close geography of the key elements makes it easy to picture the events of 79 AD as an observer from what is now Naples--the cloud of choking hot ash first suffocating Pompeii, then collapse of the mountainside and a superheated pyroclastic flow barreling like a freight train towards those in Herculaneum who had lingered to watch the eruption. The Earth often gives early warning, but in truth four million Neapolitans and their neighbors live in sight of a mountain that could release its pressure at any time. And if it happened today, I could be part of the next archeology exhibit. Almost tempting for a geologist.

The drowsy slumber of modern Pompeii is locally like a Van Gogh painting.

Before its famous eruption Vesuvius had a beautiful composite cone. So did Mount St. Helens. So do Mounts Fuji and Rainier today. How many people would stay in Tokyo or Seattle and risk an eruption, and what would remain of those cities if the wrong side of the mountain collapsed?

Imagine the opposite slopes of the mountain continuing upward and tapering to form a narrow, Fuji-like cone. That's a lot of real estate that blew away in AD 79. This is looking toward the forum and Temple of Jupiter.

Our guide today wasn't a particularly efficient man. We had only a couple hours in the ruins. The excursion could have been stretched easily to 2.5 hours, three if there weren't the gratuitous visit to a cameo shop. Our party were all expecting to re-board the bus after that first stop, so we ended up leaving our water, and a few unfortunate people left their audio guides on board while we were in the ruins. I was lucky in that the ancient public fountains still had potable water, which I could cup in my hands just like ancient relatives. Happily, I ignored the local liars selling water bottles outside the gate, because "there is no water in the ruins." There was no replacement for the folks who were shorted audio guides.

A cameo shop at Cellini Gallery made a nice stop for the shopping crowd. I would have preferred more time amongst the ruins, but a compulsory retail detour is the price of just about any packaged shore excursion. That being said, the artistry of this pricey local craft was evident, even in a tourist trap.
Some of the original fountains are still in use, albeit with new plumbing. The fresh water was good as the day got hot.

As with all ruins excursions it seems, we stopped at one of the ancient brothels. Yes, there are cartoonish frescoes that depict the activities patrons could "order" from as a menu if they didn't speak the same language as the employees. These were self explanatory but not nearly so titillating as has been described. I certainly don't feel like I took my fourteen-year-old son Thomas on an x-rated tour. There is more explicit detail on network television, and that's free. The beds were more interesting, made of stone to perhaps keep down the racket and customers from loitering.

Intertwined snakes on a wall fresco mean a pharmacy was located here or nearby. These things always seemed to be located near the brothels in the ancient world. I half expected to stumble across petrified prophylactics on the shelves. Farther down the road a large carved phallus "pointed" to the establishment of a competitor. These ancient Italians, very short people by what I can tell from doorways, had an inflated sense of ego. Some of them must have survived the eruption, because their descendants drive pickup trucks with ridiculously large tires and chrome customizations all over the US today.

Yonder house of ill repute.
"Keep it down in there!" These thoughtful Romans were sensitive to disturbing neighbors on the other side of thin walls. There was no squeak to these beds.

Our guide Mario had the stereotypical inflections of a native Italian speaking English. But, I almost cringed as some of the tour group tried to repeatedly correct his pronunciation of some words, wasting a valuable couple minutes where we could have learned something interesting. Unfortunately, the walls were solid and I couldn't sink farther into them in embarrassment. I strongly suspect none of our helpful professors speaks a single word of Italian.

As usual, I was most impressed with the engineering skill of the Romans. The flagstone pavements will last at least another two millennia. The ruts of iron-shod wagon wheels in these roads brought the place to life for me. Particularly ingenious were white, reflective stone markers for lighting the way at night, and elevated cross-walks so the citizenry needn't soil their feet on wet avenues covered in cart mule excrement. There were even strategically placed holes at the base of some fountains that allowed for water to flush street debris downhill. One thing I saw that I don't recall from my previous visit to Italy was the aptly named umbrella pine trees that are everywhere.

A paved street. The blocks in the road allowed pedestrians to cross the street without having to step onto the road itself, which doubled up as Pompeii's drainage and sewage disposal system. The spaces between the blocks allowed horse-drawn carts to pass along the road. The Roman's tacked steel to their wooden cart wheels, hence the deep ruts. This was a road filled with "fast food shops".

Maybe they doubled as sleeping policemen? There was certainly no drag racing the ox carts through these intersections.

Tom and Dad cross the street the same as the ancients. You still keep your feet dry.
The small white stones in between the flagstones were used to reflect moonlight or torchlight, to help illuminate the street.
Courtyard to the forum baths, demonstrating the Roman perfection of the arch.

Of course, the suffocating volcanic ash helped preserve the daily life of Ancient Rome here better than anywhere else, and its death. The sauna of the Roman bath felt like a sauna in the wilting summer heat. Markets, street food stalls and several private homes have a "just left look"; the tile mosaics, furniture and nearly intact, painted stucco made some houses almost move-in ready. And sweaty people smell just the same two thousand years later. I'm not one for crowds, but in this case the tourist masses are appropriate for painting the picture of a living city, just as in Delos or Ephesus. But the plaster-cast remains of poor people caught in the disaster deserve more respect than some of the fools in our party gave them, no matter how much time has passed. You'd think they were hunting trophies.

I looked on one poor exhibit and wondered who he was, who he loved and what he did for a living, though his belt suggested a slave.

The forum baths on Via Thermarum (upper left); detail of a stone giant in the tepidarium of the bath (upper right); the tepidarium (lower left); calidarium (lower right).

"Ackteon assailed with dogs" (beginning Augustan period) - The "House of Menander." The protagonists in these frescoes typically seem to be getting the short end of the stick.
House of Menander, Pompeii

Naples. I saw enough of it from the decks of the Ruby Princess. If I had a specific destination in mind, a particular art museum, I might venture into it. But it otherwise looks to be a typical, sweltering and dirty city that happens to have a few old buildings. I can get ramshackle and dodgy in Detroit for a few dollars in gas.

Would I have thought the same of Pompeii two thousand years ago?

Mickey Mouse might not be in imminent danger, but Naples is close enough to Vesuvius that someday...

August 15, 2013