En Route to Sorrento: Pompeii

From Perugia we took the train to Rome and then to Naples. The only glitch was being a few minutes late out of Perugia, which put our Rome connection in some jeopardy; I was a little nervous about finding our train in the huge Rome station. But all went off without a hitch. It is very easy to get around by train in Italy.

Except that the person who was supposed to be standing around with a sign with our names on it didn’t seem to be at the Naples station. Now what? It’s not exactly like you can walk up to any taxi and ask to be taken all the way to Sorrento; besides, we had a two-hour guided tour scheduled. Floyd wandered off in search of something, and I stood guard over our luggage, looking up all the phone numbers on our itinerary and trying to figure out how to say, We have a voucher for a driver in Italian.

Then out of nowhere a man strides purposefully toward me. Handsome, clean-shaven (including his head), in sunglasses and a suit and tie, he looked like a Secret Service agent. All he needed was a curly wire attached to one ear. We rounded up Floyd and walked to the parking lot where a Mercedes sedan was waiting, really. As he lifted our suitcases into the trunk he asked, You know Rick Steves?

Isn’t that cute, I thought. As if all Americans must know each otherWell, no, I don’t know him, I said. I know his stuff, of course. I was just reading some of his book on the train.

I just dropped him off, says Mr. Secret Service, quite obviously understanding that our acquaintance with Mr. Travel would have been limited to his written work and TV shows. That’s why I was late.

A brush with greatness! While I was reading Rick Steves aloud to Floyd on the train, the travel dude himself was sitting right where I am about to sit, in the back seat of this very car! (Frost: “Weep for what little things could make them glad.”)

Speaking of little things that make me glad, I will say this about late-afternoon traffic in Naples: I’m sure happy I don’t have to drive somebody else’s Mercedes through it. While I have always prided myself in my ability to parallel a park a car in a space that looks much shorter than my vehicle, I can’t hold a candle to the Italians. They drive without the slightest hesitation into holes in traffic that clearly have no space for one more car. It seemed to take a long time to inch our way along, but we reached the “highway” at last, talking the whole while.

Our driver was born in Sorrento, he told us; his late father had been a fisherman. Naturally we asked him where to go, where to eat, what to drink. I found it charming that everything is the best in Sorrento: the best lemons; the best limoncello (turns out to be true); the best tomatoes; the best pizza; the best white wine. He grudgingly conceded red wine and olive oil to Tuscany, but told us that Sorrento olive oil is almost as good, just different. Oh, and the best dried pasta is from nearby Campagna.

Okay then: pizza at Franco’s, gelato at Gelateria David. We were as ready for Sorrento as we could be. But first, our two-hour guided tour of Pompeii.

I have admitted already that reading about history puts me instantly to sleep. Now I can admit an exception: like any first-grader after a field trip, I am very capable of reading up on what I have seen. Having read only a tiny bit about Pompeii prior to walking a few of its streets, now I find my bookcases swelling with material about the region. It is obviously a haunting place to visit.

This first scene is right by the gate where we entered, after leaving a parking lot that looks a little like a flea market, where booths sell everything from lemonade to Pompeii-themed knick-knacks. You go from a carnival atmosphere into a broad, deep silence as the realities of what you are seeing take hold. See that stone wall going up the left hand side of the picture? That is where the sea lapped against the city’s wharves before the great eruption. The hillsides in the background were brought to you by Vesuvius.

Here is one of the city’s gateways, on a steep slope up from the harbor. The smaller pedestrian gate would be locked at night; the larger one, suitable for ox carts and vehicles as tall as ships in full sail, would have been well guarded. I doubt the streets of ancient Pompeii were particularly safe for strolling late at night.

I had just been reading about the narrow streets with their white stones placed here and there to illuminate your steps on a moonlit night. It’s difficult for those of us in the twenty-first century to imagine that level of darkness in a big city.

Just as we saw in every Italian city we’d visited, the streets consist of rows of attached buildings: a shop, a house, a shop, a house. If your house was adjacent to your shop, there would be a connecting door. If you were merely a poor shopkeeper, you might have lived in a tiny loft above your store.

Pompeii had many places to buy prepared food. Our guide said that the means and the ability to have food prepared in the home belonged to the wealthy. Although there was a bar and a brothel on just about every street corner, you probably would have found me at the bakery, where slaves would have been walking round, round, round to grind grain into flour.

And giant ovens would have been pumping out smells that must have compensated in some measure for the stink of flushing streets.

The homes of the wealthy were designed along typical lines, with rooms surrounding a central courtyard and gardens. Picture everything covered in marble, mosaic, and vivid pigments.

One of the first books I’m reading about Pompeii is about the arrangement and significance of rooms in the home. Which spaces were public, which private; which rooms were lavishly decorated, which sparse. High windows in certain locations illuminated spaces the homeowner wanted illuminated.

Our guide told us that in the morning, the relatively narrow door right on the street would be thrown open so that passers-by could look in and admire your possessions, artworks, wealth, and status. I kept thinking of our suburb with its under-emphasized front doors and enormous garage facades: every morning the doors open so passers-by can see your personal manifestations of wealth.

The little pool in the center collected rainwater from a hole in the roof. The water then poured down below, into a cistern many times larger than the pool, where numerous fish were kept, to clean the water of algae and other contaminants.

Many homes had statues standing in these pools. While not every house had its own supply of running water from the aqueducts, some did. Imagine being the archaeologist who first noticed that the (lead, of course) water pipes bore the names of the home owners. Water wasn’t free. That sounds good enough for tenure right there.

Your morning visitors would be welcomed in and offered food and wine. Old friends, people looking for favors, fans. At some point you would walk down to the forum, and if you arrived with a large group, you were making a statement about how popular and/or powerful you were. It was a very big deal to be elected into office, so for many men, life was one big political campaign: you spent your life trying to get elected and re-elected, having your name and slogans painted on walls all around town. Sound familiar?

Apart from the enormous forum where people met to talk, bargain, campaign, and vote, there are countless temples large and small. Again, picture these places paved in marble, decorated with enormous statues, lush as can be. Many of the antiquities have been relocated to the National Archaeology Museum in Naples.

Some home owners had decorative curbstones and sidewalks; some had large stone “bumpers” on the curb in front of their property. Evidently, each home and business owner was responsible for their stretch of curb and sidewalk. The bumpers prevented heavy carts from damaging the curb – which, if damaged, the owner would have to repair right away. Sounds exactly like my home owners’ association.

I’d also been reading about the stepping stones, above. Three stepping stones would indicate a two-way street. Carts were high enough to pass over the raised sections. I should have made the effort to get a photo of the wheel ruts in paving stones; it’s always amazing to me when I encounter stone worn down by feet and wheels. These streets were heavily used, and, I imagine, traversed by very heavy wagons.

It’s difficult to tell whether the streets of Pompeii actually bore names. Modern archaeologists denote them by section and house number. The original street signs were carvings describing what happened in that street. The photo above shows a street where good strong movers of heavy objects could be found.

Until some emperor or other decided they were unsuitable for viewing, stout erect penises decorated almost all the doorways as symbols of power and fertility.

Remember when I mentioned that fountain in Siena built to celebrate the installation of the aqueducts? Pompeii must have celebrated the arrival of city water also, since it allowed for the streets to be flushed regularly. The stepping stones made it possible for pedestrians to cross the street without stepping in raw sewage. A good reason why the wealthiest residents would perch their homes on top of the hills.

I can’t really explain why I didn’t get a photo of the communal outhouse. Imagine an enormous space, heavily decorated, with a stone bench around three walls. In the bench, maybe twenty holes of appropriate size. This was a very popular meeting and campaigning place (before you go thinking that’s way too weird, keep in mind that an apparently infinite number of people in the 2013 business world love going for a bathroom break with their smart phone in hand). Just because you can’t tell what someone’s doing while they are texting or talking with you doesn’t mean it isn’t happening.

Even if I had seen one, which I did not, I believe you will understand no photos of the communal wiping-sticks.

This seems like as good a time as any to head for the baths. Naturally, there were separate facilities for men versus women and children. After the enormously destructive earthquake in 62 A.D., massive funding was poured into the rebuilding of the men’s baths. As far as archaeologists can determine, by the time Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D., they hadn’t really gotten around to fixing up the women’s baths.

Elaborately decorated with mosaics, frescoes, and statuary, the walls and floors had two layers, so that fires down below heated them. You couldn’t really walk on the floors barefooted.

I wouldn’t ordinarily post a blurry photo, but this one I can’t resist as an example of 24/7 political campaigning. This is an enormous (5-6 foot diameter, I’d say) fountain. Around the rim is carved the name of the donor and a few words reminding everyone who bathed there of the great contributions this donor was making to the health and pleasure of the community.

Our guide then took us to an open market space, where ancient frescoes depicted the goods and activities associated with an area much like a modern open-air shopping mall.

Right there in the market place were two glass cases that bring the entire Vesuvius experience into sharp focus. Apparently the eruption first made itself known with odd shakings and vibrations that residents attributed to mere earthquake activity. Make a few sacrifices to the gods and everything should be fine. Then, for hours on end, bits of pumice rained down from the sky. Hours and hours, enough bits to be so deep you couldn’t get out your door; enough to finally bring roofs crashing down.

In the mid-1800’s a Neapolitan archaeologist named Giuseppe Fiorelli developed a technique for making plaster casts around the skeletons they were discovering in the area. The pumice bits had settled tightly around the poor dead humans, encasing them completely. As their bodies decomposed and gave off gases, spaces were created into which Fiorelli poured plaster.

The results are highly detailed, enormously poignant figures.

Our guide told us that this man’s wide belt indicates his slave status. You can see the size of the pumice bits all around. You can also see the real bones of this real person peeking out from his plaster shroud.

His face, all the faces, tell the story of that day in the year 79.

In a giant shed nearby, shelves of antiquities are kept company by other Pompeiians.

Above are the remains of a pregnant woman. Although the glass makes a distracting reflection, being able to see myself in it reminded me that I am just as human as she was, and have no way of knowing what final fate will be mine.

After so many hours of watching and hearing the pumice fall, fall, fall, engulfed by toxic gases and on the brink of being encased in molten lava, no wonder someone would simply crouch in a corner and think whatever thoughts one would think in such a situation.

Although it was an emotionally wrenching experience, I was very glad to have spent two hours of our vacation on this tour. We would spend the rest of our vacation seeing Mt. Vesuvius every day; and while I was having the best time of my life, the people and the culture of Pompeii were never far from my thoughts.

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