Saturday, 29 December 2012

Travels with Li Dongni - Pompeii, Italy (December 2012)

Writing travel posts about the really famous sites of the world is definitely harder than writing about some Han Dynasty watchtower in the middle of China's Taklamakan desert. Lots of people know the site, have been there themselves and have seen a dozen TV documentaries about it. Not to mention the T-shirt collection...

So like most travel posts, this one will have some of my favourite images and talk about some of the quirks I found whilst there rather than attempt to provide an in depth interpretation of Pompeii. If you want one of those, then you could do far worse than pick up Mary Beard's wonderfully engaging book on life in the ancient city.

Our visit to Pompeii occurred during a 6 day trip to Naples to visit a friend and colleague of my wife, who is local and has a passionate (and almost encyclopaedic) knowledge of her local heritage. Good news for us then!

We headed out early to ensure we had a full day to look around, but almost didn't get there at all as two 'Circumvesuviana' trains in succession were cancelled without explanation. Even the locals were getting confused and a little ratty as time passed.  Thankfully one finally arrived and we got to Pompeii slightly later than planned, but at least we were there.

One good thing about visiting in December is of course that you miss the major crowds, and we were doubly blessed with clear blue skies after torrential rain the night before. I had my trusty list of essential properties and buildings to visit, so after a quick look around the forum, we set off up the main street - the Via D'Abbondanza - towards the amphitheatre at the other end of the town, taking note of various buildings and the wonderful cobbled streets, and funky stepping stones, on the way.  Speaking of the latter, it's amazing that broken ankles weren't a major problem in Pompeii!

Beside the Forum is an open storage area, with an interesting array of amphorae and some of Pompeii's famous plaster bodies.  These are the result of the 19th Century realisation that the bodies of the unfortunate inhabitants caught up in the disaster had left perfect body-shaped voids in the layers of ash as they had decomposed.  By pouring plaster into these voids,  'models' (complete with skeletons) of the individuals could be obtained.

A small number of other such bodies are visible across the site, though not as many as you might imagine.

The amphitheatre is famous for a brawl that took place there in AD59, and for being the first Roman amphitheatre built in stone.  The brawl was so severe that gladiatorial games were banned in the city for ten years.  A wonderful fresco from the city shows the riot in progress, as well as the distinctive staircases into the seating.

We then wandered back through the city, hopping from one famous dwelling to the next, taking in the streetscape as we went.  Sadly, unlike Herculaneum, the huge majority of properties were closed off so many famous sights, such as the House of Octavius Quarto, the Garden of the Fugitives and the House of Menander had to go unseen.  Don't start crying for us just yet, though, as many fantastic elements were open.

No trip to Pompeii is complete without a trip to the brothel.  Like many, I subscribe to the opinion that the quantity of brothels in Pompeii has been massively overemphasised, and this structure probably represents the only 'formal' brothel in the city, dodgy backrooms in inns notwithstanding.  Having never been to a modern brothel, I have no grounds for comparison, but its fair to say that the ancient example definitely feels like a seedy place!

An interesting insula in the south of the city contains two theatres (one larger theatre and a smaller, covered one) and the famous Temple of Isis.  Although the theatres aren't the largest or most impressive I've seen (that title has to go to Aspendos in Turkey), the urban setting gives them a wonderful context as they nestle within the tight streets.  The Temple of Isis is far from its former glory but the sense of an urban temple within a walled precinct is unique and the frescoes, which are now in the Naples museum, are wonderful.

A highlight of any Roman site is the baths, but the examples at Pompeii (and Herculaneum too for that matter) are truly staggering, and provide a wonderfully evocative impression of the public bathing experience, though the small size of some rooms suggests that it could get very crowded.  There are three bath complexes in Pompeii - the Suburban baths, the Stabian baths and the Forum baths.  The first set of images below are of the Stabian baths, surrounding an attractive open palaestra (exercise yard).

The Forum baths are much smaller, but have recently reopened following renovation and are notable for the little Atlas-like figures holding up the columns of the clothes cubicles in the men's apodyterium.

One of the famous houses in Pompeii is the fantastically named 'House of the Tragic Poet', a house which, by no means enormous, contained many high quality mosaics and frescoes, often depicting mythological scenes.  Its most famous feature is the mosaic at the threshold, warning visitors to 'beware of the dog'.  Sadly, the mosaic was hemmed in by chicken wire and in strong shadow, making it difficult to appreciate, let alone photograph.

The largest house in Pompeii is known as the 'House of the Faun', after a statue found in the atrium, now in the Naples Museum.  The pavement outside the house bears a welcoming 'HAVE' mosaic, but the highlight is the Alexander mosaic, found in a room surrounding the garden.  A replica is in situ (not highlighted as such to any unsuspecting visitors not aware that the original has been removed), as the original is also in the Naples Museum.

Alongside houses and public buildings, Pompeii contained a variety of business premises.  The images below show some of the bakeries and thermopolia (streetside hot food stalls) to be found as you wander the streets.

One of most illuminating aspects of Pompeii's preservation is the amount of graffiti that has survived.  Although the surviving frescoes of mythological scenes are wonderful, the graffiti, electoral slogans, lararia (shrines found in houses and shops) and shop signs add a level of personal detail that nowhere else in the Roman world can match.  Sadly, a number of the better examples were hidden behind scaffolding during our visit, but many were still visible, protected behind perspex.  Having them retained in situ, rather than in a museum context really helps to bring the site to life.  Also pictured below are some of the carved signs to be found on the streets, including some lucky phalluses (if you like this sort of thing, compare them to the ones from north west England I wrote about here).

Like most visitors, we left Pompeii via the Heculaneum gate, walking past the rows of mausolea which were once common sights lining the roads out of all Roman towns.

The final stop on any visit to Pompeii has to be the Villa of the Mysteries, to be found a few hundred yards outside of the walls.  This large house is famous for the frescoes that give it its name - the images of the Dionysic mysteries that adorn the walls of the triclinium (dining room).  To view these required peering through wooden slatted windows which was far from perfect, but the quality of the artwork and its survival is impressive, to say nothing of the light they have shed on a secretive Roman cult.

Pompeii is certainly an unusual place to visit, but I confess its only now, looking back, that the amazing scale and preservation really sinks in.  While there, its almost difficult to get your mind to realise exactly what you're seeing.  One of the hardest things to do while I was there was to correlate the physical remains with the lives of the individuals who lived there, and whom I'd read about before visiting.  I wonder, as the interpretation on site is so slim, just how much general tourists really understand about what they are seeing.  Perhaps, though, that's the beauty of Pompeii - its one of the few archaeological sites in the world that actually does speak for itself.

Other ‘Travels with Li Dongni’ posts

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