Communion Of Dreams

Italy, 2012: Pompeii, past and future.
August 4, 2012, 4:48 pm
Filed under: Architecture, Art, Italy, Religion, Society, Travel | Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I am not an archeologist. I was not trained as an archeologist. I do not think like an archeologist (as was pointed out in this review of Communion of Dreams). As a result, it is difficult for me to look at fragmentary building foundations, or bit & pieces of walls, and envision a complete building. Extrapolating from that, it is even more difficult for me to envision a complete Forum, let alone an entire city. Particularly in Rome, all the subsequent over-building of the last 2,000 years made it all but impossible for me to really picture what a Classical-era city would look like.

Pompeii changed that.

* * * * * * *

First, a brief  refresher of what happened to the city of Pompeii in August of 79 AD is probably in order. (Yes, there are plenty of books and documentaries which cover this ground. And for an excellent and fairly short synopsis, I highly recommend Ann Pizzorusso’s new 4-part series, which can be found here: Pompeii – The Last Days. Seriously, Ann explains some fairly complex science in terms anyone can understand – a real skill I respect greatly.)

See this?

Mount Vesuvius as seen from the Forum of Pompeii.

That’s Mount Vesuvius, as seen from the Forum at Pompeii. It is currently 4,203 feet (1,281 meters) tall.

Take a look at that picture again. There’s a peak off to the left side of the overall mountain. That is the current cone of the volcano, and the height today measures to that point.

But if you extend the slope from the right, and the slope from the left, up until they would meet, that would be some 3,000 feet higher. That’s where the volcano used to be, before the eruption of 79 AD. It is estimated that during the course of the eruption the volcano lost something on the order of 1.5 cubic miles of material.

*That* is what happened to Pompeii (and Herculaneum as well as a number of smaller towns in the area). That material was deposited over the surrounding area as a combination of ash, rock, and pyroclastic flows.

Pompeii was first subject to heavy ash and debris falling from the sky. Some of this material was incendiary. All of it was heavy (well, when you get a couple meters of such material, it adds up). Roofs caved in, buildings collapsed. Toxic gases settled into lower areas, suffocating people. This was the first phase of the destruction, and lasted some 12 to 18 hours, tapering off towards the end enough that many of the survivors in the city were able to seek their escape.

Then a series of pyroclastic surges hit the city. The first couple seem to have been unable to break through the city’s walls on the north side. Subsequent ones flowed over the walls, blasting through the city of 20,000 in a minute or two. Anyone who hadn’t escaped died very quickly and very violently, basically being vaporized. Buildings which still protruded above the massive ash & pumice blanket were blasted away. People who had died and were buried by the ash were now sealed in by the molten rock of the pyroclastic surge. Hence the existence of the ‘body casts’ created by pouring plaster into voids discovered during excavations. Like this one, in storage amongst a bunch of amphora:

* * * * * * *

I said that visiting Pompeii allowed me to envision what a Classical-era city looked like. In part that is because the way the city was buried meant that there is much more of it left. The buildings aren’t just foundations and fragments (though they’re hardly complete). More importantly, the city hasn’t been over-built by generations of people who were re-inventing it. You get to see exactly how the city looked as a working city.

And, curiously, adding in thousands of tourists (the city get some 2.5 million visitors annually) actually made it easier for me to think of it as a living, working city, not just ruins. You’ll see what I mean in the following selection of pictures. Rather than try to give a tour of the city, I’m just going to select a good sample of the images I took, add some brief captions, and go from there.

* * * * * * *

Avenue of private tombs, outside the city walls.

Gate into the city. Part of Vesuvius is visible in the background.


Exterior of the colosseum at Pompeii.


Another portion of the exterior.


Interior of the coloseum. This would hold some 20,000 people.

Entry space of a small townhouse/villa. Partial plaster and pigment on the walls.


Painting under the portico of a small townhouse/villa.


Another portion of the portico of that townhouse/villa.

Small decorative image painted directly on the wall of this townhouse/villa. Not unlike how we put up framed images in our homes and offices.


Another small image.


A typical major street.


Another city street, this one with wagon wheel ruts from heavy use.


Interior of a temple courtyard.


Large temple near the Forum.


Large temple near the Forum.


Large temple near the Forum.


Major buildings along/adjacent the Forum.


Major buildings along/adjacent the Forum.


Major buildings along/adjacent the Forum.


A bakery. The small free-standing stones in the background is a grain mill. The serving counter with embedded pots – which probably contained fast-food munchies of some variety.


Another bakery (these were all over – about one per block). Note the larger grain mill and oven in the background.


Looking down on the Villa of the Mysteries. The roof is modern, but the support columns are original.


Villa of the Mysteries columns from ground level.


Inside the Villa of the Mysteries.


Entryway to the root cellar at the Villa of the Mysteries.


Oven at the Villa of the Mysteries.


One of the mosaics at Pompeii.


Another of the mosaics still there.

* * * * * * *

We spent the whole day there, with a break for a picnic lunch sitting on the steps of a large temple, feeding the local pigeons and stray cats along with ourselves.

It was a good day. A sobering day. Walking in the ruins of an empty city – and I did come to think of Pompeii as a real city – was enlightening. Henceforth it was much easier to “see” the fragmentary Classical ruins as complete buildings.

But perhaps just as importantly, it was also easier to start to envision complete buildings as future ruins. More on that, later.

Jim Downey

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[…] said that visiting Pompeii was “sobering,” but the primary thing that going there did for me was to help me envision what a Roman city was […]

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