Pompeii lives on after the destruction

I spent a week in Naples in January 2020, and on a sunny winter’s day, I took the train to Pompeii, the ancient Roman city that was destroyed by a cataclysmic eruption of the volcanic mountain of Vesuvius in AD 79

The eruption lasted for two days and killed at least 1,150 of the inhabitants because that number of remains have been discovered in the layers of ash that suffocated what had been a prosperous city luxuriating in the beautiful Bay of Naples. We still shudder to see some of the ash-preserved bodies of the victims in their moment of death.

Pliny the Younger, was a young man in AD79 living across the Bay of Naples at Misenum with his mother and his uncle, the famous natural historian, Pliny the older, who was killed when he made an exploratory scientific trip over the water to Pompeii on the first day of the eruption. Pliny the Younger wrote his unique eye-witness account of the catastrophe in a letter to his friend, the young Tacitus, later to become Ancient Rome’s greatest historian.

Pliny the Younger, Santa Maria Maggiore, Como (pre-1480)

‘The ashes now began to fall upon us, though in no great quantity. I looked back; a dense dark mist seemed to be following us, spreading itself over the country like a cloud. “Let us turn out of the high-road,” I said, “while we can still see, for fear that, should we fall in the road, we should be pressed to death in the dark, by the crowds that are following us.” We had scarcely sat down when night came upon us, not such as we have when the sky is cloudy, or when there is no moon, but that of a room when it is shut up, and all the lights put out. You might hear the shrieks of women, the screams of children, and the shouts of men; some calling for their children, others for their parents, others for their husbands, and seeking to recognise each other by the voices that replied; one lamenting his own fate, another that of his family; some wishing to die, from the very fear of dying; some lifting their hands to the gods’ (Pliny the Younger, Letter to Tacitus, AD79).

It was a moving experience to stand on the site of Pompeii and to imagine the terrible scenes that occurred here so long ago but, in a quirk of history and archeology, still remains viscerally realistic to us today. I was lucky enough to walk round these empty ruined streets because this was January and there were not many people around what is usually a very crowded tourist destination.

Here the absence of those dead citizens of Pompeii was vividly reflected in the desolation of the ruins that felt all so abandoned still after normal life here ended in two days of horror. I acknowledge the importance of the site for historians and archaeologists, and admire them for their work, but for many of us, a visit to Pompeii is primarily emotional and philosophical.

We don’t know the names of those who survived or those who died but, remarkably, we have more than just the stone remains of the city to show us at least some of the details of who they were, these people of Pompeii, and how they lived and what they thought was beautiful.

The essential other half of a visit to this site, is to go to the Naples Archaeological Museum which is now home to many of the artefacts and works of art found here, preserved in the ashes. In Naples you can see some of the fine interior designs for some of the houses, as well as many works of art and utility objects from Pompeii’s citizens’ domestic lives.

There are also, maybe most interestingly, a number of what are probably portraits of some of the inhabitants of Pompeii. Wonderful images of ordinary people who look just like us, or more of less. These show us that behind the drama and the history, there were always human beings.

The grander houses of Pompeii had elaborately decorated walls in their main living spaces – some showed battle scenes like this one showing the military victories of Alexander the Great.

Other murals depict legendary figures, such as Perseus and Andromeda, or classical gods like Venus and Mars.

Perseus freeing Andromeda
Venus and Mars

There are also more down-to-earth images, such as this troupe of lively actors and musicians.

There are highly realistic studies of animals, like this triumphant lion killing a leopard, or even what appear to be beloved domestic pets, a dog straining on its lead, or a pair of fighting cocks.

Maybe the most famous murals from Pompeii are not gods and goddesses or heroes of legends, but images that were probably displayed in brothels, and these are some of the more discreet ones. They might have been salacious for otherwise prudish brothel clients or, I’d like to think, they show a healthy, untroubled view of sex.

The phallus was a symbol of good health, good luck and prosperity for the people of Pompeii, presumably, the bigger the better, and phallic images were often used as street signs or good luck charms on door lintels to ward off evil.

Here Priapus is not represented as an erotic image, if he was meant to, this comically unrealistic mage might not have worked. Priapus here is a symbol of luck and prosperity but let’s assume, he also shows an unembarrassed and optimistic view of sex.

Actors and musicians often appear in these Pompeii murals and mosaics, and we can only assume Pompeii citizens loved the theatre – the amphitheatre here is well preserved and could have entertained large numbers in the city’s classical theatre-in-the-round.

I was persuaded to make a fool of myself in public – again – by our Neapolitan tour guide, who is also a Pompeii antiquarian, and to whom I had foolishly told that I once studied singing. He suggested that I go down to the centre of the stage and test the acoustics with a burst of song. To an audience of no more than eight or nine tourists, including some members of a young Chinese dance troupe, I did my best at an impromptu chorus of a song. I didn’t have to think long about what to sing – well this is Naples, so it had to be O sole mio. They could hear me at the back, I was told.

The Polish sculptor, Igor Mitoraj (1944 – 21014) was commissioned to make an exhibition of his work with its emphasis on fragmented human bodies. After the exhibition finished, this figure of Daedalus was kept here, now a permanent exhibit. It shows Daedalus, the man who made wings of wax and flew too close to the sun. it dominates the skyline at the entrance to Pompeii in a way that’s entirely appropriate to this inspiring but tragic place.

Daedalus by Igor Mitoraj (2016)

It deserves to stand here, just as a painting of Vesuvius by Andy Warhol has earned its place in Naples’ Capodimonte Gallery along with Caravaggio and Titian. Pompei and its fall, like Daedalus, will speak to every generation about the impermanence of life.

Vesuvius 365 by Andy Warhol (1985)

This visit proved to be the end of my four years of travelling around Italy, because the Covid virus over-took us all. only week after my visit to Pompeii. In Italy I found many new things and also confirmed to myself, the many reasons why I need to keep returning to this wonderful country. One of my earliest Italian enthusiasms, as I have reported here before, was the voice of that great Neapolitan, Enrico Caruso (1873 – 1921). I was thinking of him when I made my well-intentioned rendition of O Sole Mio at Pompeii, so it is only appropriate to end this series of blogs with the great man himself in a recording from 1916, proving, at least to me, amongst all this impermanence, the human spirit, like in Pompeii, is immortal.

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