with Barbara Rizza Mellin
It was not the molten rocks or flowing lava that destroyed Pompeii nearly 2000 years ago; it was the ash, covering everything with a layer more than 20 feet deep.
Before Mt. Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., Pompeii was a prosperous city of trade, commerce and luxurious residences at the mouth of the River Sarno in Italy. Twenty thousand of its 22,000 residents escaped the tragedy, but their city did not. After the eruption, it lay buried, forgotten and virtually undisturbed for 1,600 years, until excavation of the archeological site began in 1860. It continues to the present. Approximately one quarter of the city is still buried beneath ash, yet to be exposed and examined.
Today, you can visit the remains, either on your own or as a guided day trip from Naples or Rome, as I did. Most the ruins look like half-crumbled walls or columns, and if you don’t know what they were originally used for, you’ll be seeing only the surface and missing the significance of your visit. So, I suggest you take a tour with a knowledgeable guide or at least take advantage of the audio guides available.
When you walk through the two arched gates of Porta Marina, you come upon the forum. Rows of columns define the area, which now exhibits the ruins of municipal buildings, a basilica (for secular business) and a temple. You can also view Mount Vesuvius gleaming in the distance, ever present. The city reveals thoughtful planning.
Large, raised, circular stepping stones were positioned along the streets to enable residents to cross during the rainy season without getting their feet wet. The stones were spaced so chariot wheels could pass on either side. As I walked along, with my own footsteps falling into the worn ruts, I couldn’t help but feel a connection to the past. I observed a deep pride of place: floors decorated with inlaid marble or detailed mosaics, walls embellished with fresco paintings, and wonderful architectural details. The House of the Small Fountain on Mercury Street has walls with painted frescos reflecting the vibrant life that once existed in this port-side community. A fairly rich family owned this house since it also featured running water and upstairs bedrooms.
An even wealthier family owned the House of the Faun, named for the bronze statue of the mythological wood-nymph that embellishes a garden, edged with Doric columns. With beautiful marble inlays, 88 columns, two atriums, six bedrooms, servants’ quarters and grand entrances, this surely was a glorious edifice. The exedra or dining room floor is decorated with a magnificent (and now famous) battle mosaic portraying the conquest of Alexander the Great over his enemy Darius, King of the Persians. The original of both the mosaic and the faun statue are in the National Museum in nearby Naples, but the reproductions at Pompeii place these masterpieces in context and allow us to visualize the grand lifestyle that once existed here. This extraordinary house covering an entire block—128 feet by 352 feet—is thought to have belonged to Publius Sulla, an official administrator of Pompeii.
We also see middle class homes and poorer residences. One amusing entrance shows the mosaic of a dog with the words Cave Canem, “Beware of the dog.” There is a bakery with bread still in the ovens, shops with produce, and wine jugs on a bar. We see everyday life, interrupted.
It is almost impossible to image what it must have been like to see a mountain explode and cover your world with 20 feet of ash. Yet, because of this amazing protective covering, we can image what life was like before the eruption. Walking the streets of Pompeii is like traveling 2000 years back in time to find the past is not so different from the present.