Friday, 4 January 2013

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

This is the third and final post about my trip to Naples and Italy's beautiful Amalfi coast.  Click the links to see my earlier posts about Pompeii and Naples itself.

Herculaneum is one of the most important of Italy's Roman archaeological sites, but usually takes second place to Pompeii in terms of public profile.  I had high hopes of the site though, as many have said that Herculaneum offers a more personal and emotive experience than its larger and more famous counterpart.  I have to say I completely agree with them.

Conservation issues have a high profile at Herculaneum, and it would be remiss of me not to mention the groundbreaking multinational Herculaneum Conservation Project, which is working to preserve and promote the fragile remains.

Unlike Pompeii, which feels like an abandoned town, Herculaneum feels more like a traditional archaeological site.  It is intimately connected with the unremarkable modern town of Resina, built directly over the ancient ruin and, in fact, preventing wide-scale further exploration.  The height at which the visitor enters the ancient site makes it possible to immediately see the extent of the exposed remains, simultaneously providing a sense of stratigraphical age and a sense that the site is possible to explore in its entirety in a single visit.  The proximity of the modern housing looming over the site (and architecturally rather sympathetic to the ancient remains) is striking.

The difference between Pompeii and Herculaneum is worth stressing, as they are often simply described as 'towns'.  In fact, while Pompeii was a Roman colony - an important town bustling with traders, craftsmen, and a range of public baths, temples, theatres and an amphitheatre, Herculaneum was more of a sleepy resort town, albeit for some rather wealthy Romans.  The focus at Herculaneum is very much on domestic remains.

The death toll of the AD69 eruption of Vesuvius is often overstated in popular thought.  Although the idea that the unfortunate inhabitants were caught unawares by blasts of hot ash as they went about their daily lives endures, the reality was somewhat different.  The residents were aware of the impending disaster and the majority had already packed their belongings and left before the worst happened.  The dead found at the sites reflect those that were too slow, too stubborn or too infirm to evacuate, or those that underestimated the force of the eruption with their choice of hiding place.  

It was thought for a long time that the population of Herculaneum escaped virtually unscathed due to a lack of large numbers of bodies discovered in the town, but excavations of a series of stores and boat houses on the seafront in 1980 sadly changed that interpretation.  The bodies of 300 individuals were found, many carrying valuables, no doubt hoping for a rescue by sea that never arrived.  The remains discovered here are not on open display, though the site's tour guides use promises of access to this area as a bargaining chip when touting for business.  Despite being keen to see them, we declined the tour in favour of exploring every nook and cranny on our own.

I certainly don't have space in this post to do a house by house tour, so here are some general images of the town.

As at Pompeii some of the surviving frescoes, both within houses and on the streets, are the most evocative survivals of the living town.

Herculaneum had two public bath houses - the central baths and the suburban baths.  Sadly, when we visited the suburban baths weren't open, which is a shame as they are some of the best surviving bath remains to be found anywhere.  Thankfully, the central baths are far from disappointing, as a complete male and female bath suite survive, including a characterful mosaic in the female changing room (apodyterium) depicting Triton surrounded by sea creatures.

An architectural highlight of the town is the surviving two storey dwelling known as the 'Trellis House'.  This was a boarding house, designed to be home to several families - in far from the luxury that some of their neighbours enjoyed.  Aside from the dramatic, open balcony, supported by three brick pillars at the edge of the pavement, the structure is interesting for the use of 'opus craticium', a building technique which used a wooden framework filled with rough stone and mortar.

The dwelling known as the 'Samnite House' was built in the 2nd Century BC and is notable for its architecture and the variety of decorative styles on display.  The fresco below shows a mythological scene of Europa and the bull.

Another house that stands out is the 'House of the Wooden Partition'.  This has nice examples of the stone benches outside that were used by clients waiting to see the owner.  Inside, the house is famous for the survival that gives it its name - a large wooden folding partition that shielded the atrium from the tablinium.

As at Pompeii, Herculaneum has its fair share of streetside food and drink shops.  The thermopolia (hot food stalls) are identical to those at Pompeii, with their inset ceramic storage jars and broken marble counters.  One particularly special shop at Herculaneum is one where the wooden storage furniture and part of a wooden balcony have survived.

Possibly my favourite building at Herculaneum was the College of the Augustals - built during the life of Augustus and dedicated to the worship of the Imperial family.  The frescoes inside the cella depict Hercules, Jupiter, Juno and Minerva.  Look out for the surviving carbonised wood around the ceiling.

Finally the nature of the site, with the edge of the visible remains quite literally vanishing into the rockface upon which the modern town stands, offers a wonderful opportunity to see exactly what excavating through thick layers of ash involves.  Some buildings are visible purely as frontages, the remains of their interiors still a mystery.

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