Communion Of Dreams


Italy, 2012: The ghosts nearby.

“Finally we stood in a level, narrow valley (a valley that had been created by the terrific march of some old time irruption) and on either hand towered the two steep peaks of Vesuvius. The one we had to climb – the one that contains the active volcano – seemed about eight hundred or one thousand feet high, and looked almost too straight-up-and-down for any man to climb, and certainly no mule could climb it with a man on his back. Four of these native pirates will carry you to the top in a sedan chair, if you wish it, but suppose they were to slip and let you fall, – is it likely that you would ever stop rolling? Not this side of eternity, perhaps. We left the mules, sharpened our finger-nails, and began the ascent I have been writing about so long, at twenty minutes to six in the morning. The path led straight up a rugged sweep of loose chunks of pumice-stone, and for about every two steps forward we took, we slid back one. It was so excessively steep that we had to stop, every fifty or sixty steps, and rest a moment. To see our comrades, we had to look very nearly straight up at those above us, and very nearly straight down at those below. We stood on the summit at last – it had taken an hour and fifteen minutes to make the trip.”

Mark Twain, Chapter 30 of The Innocents Abroad.

 

* * * * * * *

 

Yeah, it isn’t quite that bad climbing Mount Vesuvius today. There’s now a very good path which switchbacks a couple of times, then winds around the mountain a fair amount, making for a longer walk but one which is still fairly steep, climbing the final 200 meters of elevation from the parking lot. Take a look:

 

 

 

 

Then once you’re to the top, you can walk about a third of the way around the lip of the crater. On one side, you look down into the crater, on the other out over the volcanic plains to the Bay of Naples:

 

 

 

 

Looking towards Naples.

 

There’s a dark patch of green surrounded by buildings directly above the corner post: that’s Pompeii.

 

 

At the top – at the very end of the public trail – there’s a little hut selling refreshments and souvenirs. And the prices are more reasonable than you might expect. But I decided that I didn’t really need either an ashtray or a skull carved out of black pumice.

Standing there on what’s left of Vesuvius, looking out over the plains below, I felt a bit melancholy. It could have just been the exertion to climb to the top. Or that I knew the trip was coming to a close. But looking out over the misty cities, it was easy to picture another eruption. There are millions of people within potential reach of the volcano. Naples – a city of some 4 million – is conceivably at risk. In the immediate area around the volcano some 600,000 people are subject to possible pyroclastic flows. Current scientific models indicate that there would probably be two to three weeks of warning before a serious eruption, but no one is entirely confident of that. And at best, it would take 5 -7 days to evacuate those most at risk.

 

* * * * * * *

 

We came down off the mountain, but in some sense didn’t leave it. It lurked there on the skyline as we went to Herculaneum.

I 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 like.

Herculaneum was different. It was even more immediate – more “real.” That’s because of the way the city was destroyed.

When Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, Herculaneum was mostly out of the immediate ash cloud. In Pompeii, the city was largely buried by ash and small rock debris to a depth of several meters in the first few hours. This caused roofs to collapse, and entombed people in ash after they suffocated or died from blunt trauma.

Not so in Herculaneum. They only got a few inches of ash initially. This meant that they had a lot more time for the city to be evacuated. But when the blow came to Herculaneum, it came very swiftly – in the form of a pyroclastic flow of molten rock and debris moving at 100 mph and at a temperature of over 900 degrees Fahrenheit.

Those who were in the city died almost instantaneously, their flesh vaporized in the heat. All that was left was bone.

Likewise, structures were encased in the molten mass, and it happened so quickly that wood didn’t burn – it was carbonized, turned to charcoal, sealed in super-heated rock. Roofs didn’t collapse, as the structures were filled inside as well as covered over on the outside. Eventually, the entire city was covered to a depth of more than 20 meters. The result was a city which was even better preserved than Pompeii. Better preserved, and because of that more tangible. You couldn’t help but walk the streets, enter the houses, and feel like you were in a living city, one which had just misplaced its populace. The ghosts were still close here:

Vesuvius waits.

 

The boathouses where the final refugees died.

 

Courtyard of the baths.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Temple paintings.

 

Carbonized rafters.

 

Street scene.

 

At the wine merchant’s.

 

Wood on the outside of the wine shop.

 

A local snack bar.

 

Another street scene.

 

Wooden screw press, now carbonized and behind glass. This was probably used in the making or cleaning of cloth.

 

City above, city below. (Ercolano – the modern city, and Herculaneum).

 

* * * * * * *

It was our last night at the villa. Usually this is something of a party night for everyone, and for much of the group this was true. But somehow I just wasn’t really in the mood.

Jim Downey
PS: there’s an excellent collection of additional images from this trip, taken by Angie Bohon, another member of the group. They can be seen here, here, and here.



Italy, 2012: Nasty Naples.

OK, I’m going to get this right out in the open: I don’t like Naples.

Driving through the outskirts of the city previously, it seemed nice enough on first glance. But when you looked closer, that changed. At least it did for me.

I mentioned in the first of these travelogues that Italy had a somewhat casual attitude about many things, and that you just learned to roll with unexpected changes or closures or whatnot. No big deal. At least it wasn’t in most of the (admittedly small) part of the country I got to see.

But in Naples, that “roll with it” attitude is seriously tested. Because it seems like the whole city, and most of the population therein, is *trying* to make things difficult. Difficult for you. Difficult for one another. Difficult for themselves.

You expect any large city to have some not-so-nice areas. For some buildings to be a bit run-down. For the infrastructure to have the occasional problem. In Naples, all of this seems to have been taken almost to an art form. Lots of large apartment complexes look like they’ve been through a war – facades crumbling, paint long since peeled off, iron railings staining walls with rust. There are huge swathes of shanty-towns along the highways, as bad as the worst areas I’ve seen in developing countries. And where another country might have an odd exit ramp closed for maintenance, around Naples there were multiple such ramps and roads which were just fenced off and then used to pile garbage and the sort of debris generated by any large road system: tires, car body pieces, general crap which hadn’t been tied down properly, construction scrap, et cetera.

I was surprised to find out that the port of Naples has the world’s second-highest passenger flow in the world. The city is one of the major metropolitan areas in Europe. It’s almost 3,000 years old, and has a proud and colorful history. But today it is widely considered to be badly corrupt, and the advantages it has due to location and heritage are seemingly squandered.

* * * * * * *

After a morning workshop (I took some notes about the trip, enjoyed walking around the grounds of the villa a bit) and a nice bit of lunch, we loaded up to drive into Naples. Our first stop was the Naples National Archeology Museum. Now, you’ll note that if you go to their website, it is in Italian. Even though the link I used was supposedly for the English-language version. And I can’t find a way to change it to English. Clicking on the ‘English’ icon doesn’t seem to change anything. Which pretty much epitomizes my rant above.

This is a very substantial museum – both is size and in importance. It is said to be the most important archeological museum in Italy. It’s also a bit of a mess.

I’m not picking on the museum because I don’t like Naples. No, it’s the other way around: part of the reason I don’t like Naples is because of this museum.

What didn’t I like? Well, once again, the only climate-controlled area is in the main entrance hall and adjacent galleries. Which are full primarily of sculpture and ceramics. Some very nice sculpture and ceramics, works of art which need to be preserved and cared for, but nonetheless they’re much more stable than many of the other artifacts held in the collection. Artifacts such as extremely fragile wall paintings which were removed from Pompeii and Herculaneum. Artifacts which are in galleries which just have open windows, and so subject to high humidity and temperature variations.

 

* * * * * * * *

One last point, and then I’ll stop bitching about the state of the museum.

As noted, this is a very large facility, and a huge collection. Yet for whatever reason, they just randomly close off whole galleries. This isn’t done by the museum administration, it isn’t some clever plan to rotate exposure of the collection to help preserve it or anything. No, it’s just done by the guards. As in, one guard will get tired of standing, or bored of being by him/herself, and so close off a gallery and go sit and have a chat with another guard in a nearby gallery. It’s common to find two or three guards sitting on a couple of chairs or a bench, chatting away, half-heartedly keeping an eye on the throngs of people passing through the place, while a nearby gallery has been “closed” with a barrier rope and a couple of stands.

At one point either Steve or Amy had to go off and roust one of these guys to come open up a gallery which they had just closed, since it contained some of the most important wall paintings which Steve wanted to show us. It took some convincing, but worked. And when we were done, the guard closed off the section behind us as we left, and went back to having a good conversation with his two buddies in a nearby gallery.

* * * * * * *

Some of the items I took pics of inside the museum, where it was allowed:

Looking down on the Great Hall.

Roman dogs.

Decorative tombs.

Mosaics.

 

 

Mosaics.

 

 

Mosaics.

 

 

Mosaic.

Part of the Roman erotica collection. More info here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Erotic_art_in_Pompeii_and_Herculaneum

* * * * * * *

After we had gone through and seen a number of specific items that Steve wanted to present to the group, we had some time to just explore the museum. I did so, but still had some time to kill. So I decided to pop out into the surrounding neighborhood and hit a couple of the “tobacchi” shops in quest of some stamps for the stack of postcards I had.

The first one did have some stamps. But they weren’t sure what postage I needed to mail to the US. And the denominations of the stamps were such that even to mail within the EU, you had to overpay what was required.

And they only had enough for just a few postcards. Sorry. The prospect of referring me to another nearby “tobacchi” store which might have more seemed to be offensive – why the hell did they want to help either me or the other stores?

So I hoofed it down the street a ways. From a distance I could see two more of the little standard signs the places used.

The first one had a workman doing something to the ceiling of the place, and he had a ladder up in the doorway. I tried to ask whether I could come in, or whether they even had stamps, and was basically told to piss off, complete with a few fairly universal gestures to drive home the point.

I moved on. Down at the bottom of a hill I found the location of another shop. But it had been shuttered for some time, given the disreputable state of things. I asked a couple of nearby people who were waiting for a bus and was once again told to piss off. The guy sitting outside his cheap shoe shop next door wasn’t even that nice about it.

I gave up. Hiked back to the museum to wait for our bus. Probably just as well – one of the four postcards I mailed was to my home. It still hasn’t shown up. I’m glad I saved a buttload of money and just brought the cards home and mailed ‘em from here.

* * * * * * *

Our next stop was Vergil’s Tomb, which is in a nice little park-like location overlooking the city.

Naples.

 

More Naples. Note Vesuvius in the not-too-distant background.

Whether Vergil’s bones are still in the tomb is anyone’s guess. But the group enjoyed going there, and we all drank a tribute to him.

* * * * * * *

We got back to the villa in early evening, in time for a shower and a drink or two before dinner. Going into Naples was depressing enough that I needed that drink or two. Or perhaps it was just because it had now been a full week that I had been in Italy, and the inevitable travel-weariness was starting to catch up to me.

Jim Downey



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