Monday, 27 August 2012

In the shadow of Mt Vesuvius

Being so close, we could not leave Italy without viewing for ourselves the preservation caused by Mt Vesuvius almost two thousand years ago. Allowing two days, we based ourselves in the modern town of Pompeii (anything to avoid Naples) within easy access of the archaeological ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

First stop though, Pompeii
This rambling city was spectacular. The guide books say allow 3 hours, so my fellow enthusiast jokingly said 'for us that means 6 hours' but sensibly we allowed the whole day It was indeed thankful that we had the foresight to consult a medley of guidebooks to determine the buildings least inclined to miss: the ones with the most impressive frescos and mosaics, the ones that played the greatest role in reviving the story of this unfortunate city long after its untimely death. But even with the nine hours we spend we still didn’t manage to see it all.
It was a beautiful place and simply astonishing to think that though nowhere near completely excavated we have been fortunate to learn so much about Roman society due to the catastrophic tragedy of one event, one day 1933 years ago.

Though build along classic Roman lines (a simple grid pattern), Pompeii has experienced millions of feet pacing its cobbled streets, pounding its antique footpaths. Jumping across roads on the raised zebra crossings you could see below you the ragged grooves of the frequent passage of Roman chariots and carts 2000 years ago. Where a history of Roman carts and chariots racing down the streets it can no longer be assumed that either will have retained a smooth flatness we are so used to expecting of our thoroughfares. As one is constantly watching one’s feet, trying to limit the stumbling on these solid if incredibly pitted stone walkways after 9 hours of continual walking one does end up with very sore feet and an aching desire to collapse into the nearest armchair.
Though all features of value rest within a Neapolitan museum the restoration teams have ensured that the uninformed tourist sees such an exact replica that they are never the wiser of this deception played upon them. Gargoyles and appropriately phallic Herm decorate the streets and communal water fountains while on exterior walls Latin graffiti informs you of who to vote for, who is buggering who and rating of the food at various hostelries along the way.
Indoors, mosaics warning ‘Beware the dog’ pave the entrance hall of several houses, goddesses, animals and theatrical masks look down from the walls amongst a myriad of intense colours and beautiful detailing, and taking centre stage gardens and water features fill the square between the ornate columns that continue to hold up the tiled roof.
In one of the back alleys just around the corner from the local pub, sits the brothel, its walls decorated with a ‘how to’ guide appropriate for the trade on which it thrives. Evidence in Pompeii seems to show that in places the exterior walls of the city was plastered over and painted in bright colours, adding a further element of colour and life to an already vibrant image of this deceased city. Just picture the image of the whole city glowing red in the Italian sunlight before in the dying light of the summer sun the crowds dwindle and the ghosts come out to play.
In comparison to Pompeii where you couldn't see from one end of the town to the other and there was a jumble of streets and houses in which to get lost, Herculaneum was tiny. It basically comprised of 6 blocks of buildings and a waterfront now situated 500m from the ocean. But Herculaneum contains artefacts that simply blow the mind. Because this town was engulfed in ash and hot gases that emitted an intense heat, much of the organic material was instantly carbonised before being subsumed in approximately 25 metres of tuff producing an airtight seal that lasted for 1,700 years. It was here that the famous charred loaf of bread was recovered and it is here that one can still see the carbonised roof beams and staircase in situ.
Admittedly the frescos don’t compare with Pompeii, but Herculaneum has a pile of rope and elements of doors, architraves, roof beams that though charred through, have survived well enough to still see the details carved onto these beams. And in one place, there are the first few steps of a wooden staircase leading to an upstairs apartment from the street door; Recognisable stairs that had survived almost 2000 years.
If you've been to Pompeii, don't go for the frescos as you will be disappointed (only one is truly superior), but go for the wood: so much of it still exists, and in an assortment of places that it can’t fail to astonish.

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