Around Us / Pompeii
...faring out to Pompeii on a Sunday afternoon,
I enjoyed there, for the only time I can recall,
the sweet chance of a late hour or two,
the hour of the lengthening shadows, absolutely alone.
The impression remains ineffaceable.
Henry James, 1900
On the morning of August 24, A.D. 79, a great noise was heard in the area around Vesuvius. “A black and terrible cloud, rent by snaking bursts of fire, gaped open in huge flashes of flames” rose high in the air, darkening the sky. A shower of burning cinders and rock fragments covered Pompeii: it lasted until the next day, caving in roofs and claiming its first victims. The Pompeians tried to take shelter in the houses or hoped to escape; but at dawn on August 25, a violent explosion of toxic gases and burning cinders devastated the city. A shower of very fine ash was deposited everywhere, enveloping everything. When, two days later, the fury of the elements abated, the entire area had a different aspect.
From this terrifying destruction, whose testimony has come to us thanks to the letters of Pliny the Younger, was born the myth of Pompeii. The first discoveries were in the XVI century, but only in 1748 began the systematic exploration, thanks to the King of Naples Charles III of Bourbon.
Pompeii, the most evocative and famous archaeological site in the world, provides a complete and vivid picture of society and daily life at a specific moment in the past, that is without parallel anywhere in the world.
For this reason Pompeii was entered in the UNESCO list of World Heritage Sites.
The city has returned many examples of public buildings and private that contribute to the definition of the ancient city’s physiognomy, both its artistic aspects and those connected with the everyday life.
The most surprising aspect is the number of houses still preserved and complete with their workshops, inns and ovens. More impressive is the fact that many furnishings have remained intact, allowing us an insight into the more intimate daily life two thousand years ago.
This is immediately clear walking down the street so-called Via dell’Abbondanza (a modern name, like all of those in Pompeii), one of the most important artery of the city, which was home to craftsmen’s workshops, taverns, inns, dyers’ shops and private houses.
In the same area there were the Stabian Thermae, the oldest building in Pompeii. It should be noted that not all Pompeians had running water in their homes. Thus using the thermal baths was a necessity as well as a custom that manifested a particular conception of free time. People went to the baths not only to take a bath, but also to meet friends, converse, and to seek political favor.
Nearby is the famous Lupanare (brothel), always crowded of tourists: a two-floor building whose function is represented by explicit and erotic wall paintings and writings.
However, the Forum was the vibrant center of the city: a large rectangular square, paved in travertine and enclosed on three sides by a colonnade. Around the Forum there were the main religious, political and economic buildings, and its perimeter was adorned with statues of the imperial family and the most illustrious citizens.
In fact, here we can admire the Capitolium (the temple dedicated to Jupiter), the Temple of Apollo and the Basilica, the most important public building, which housed the Tribunal and was the center of economic life. Other important buildings are the Temple of Vespasian, which is dedicated to the imperial cult, the public Granaries, where cereals were collected to be sold, and the Macellum, the covered market selling fresh produce, such as meat and fish, with tabernae (taverns) tucked inside.
The Forum is contrasted by the theatre area, the epicenter of cultural and religious activities in Pompeii. In this area it was discovered the Great Theater - where it was played works of Plautus and Terentius, mimes and pantomimes (with dancing and music) - and the Odeion (small Theater) - perhaps used for musical performances and poetry readings.
Amazing for the visitor is the Amphitheatre, the oldest of its kind that has been preserved, able to accommodate over 20,000 spectators. The building was used for gladiator battles. Two gates opened onto the main axis of the arena: participants in the games paraded in through one gate, while the dead or injured were carried away through the other.
Among private buildings, the House of the Faun is the most beautiful due to its architecture and its famous mosaics, such as the famous Alexander Mosaic, which depicts a battle between Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia, a masterpiece now housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Wonderful are also the House of the Vettii, known for the splendid frescoes that adorn the walls, and the House of the tragic poet, which is characterized by the mosaic at the entrance representing a chained dog, with the famous inscription CAVE CANEM: "Beware of Dog".
One of the most important buildings in Pompeii is the Villa of Mysteries, which is especially famous for its paintings. The most famous is the huge fresco which gives the house its name, and which features twenty-nine life-size figures depicted in vivid colors on a red background, perhaps an initiation scene to the cult of Dionysus or to the Orphic Mysteries.
Unforgettable, finally, is the view of the so-called “Garden of the fugitives”, which houses the plaster casts of some of the victims from 79 A.D., overcome by the fury of the eruption while they were seeking an escape. Thanks to the plaster casts, today we can see the expressions on the victims’ faces, the folds of their clothes, the contorted positions in which they were surprised by the fury of Vesuvius: the authentic image of that horrible tragedy.
Visit the ruins is a constant surprise. It is like taking a journey back in time that allows us to breathe the ancient atmosphere of life at the time of the Roman Empire.
Walking through Pompeii’s excavations is a unique experience.