My dad and I took the train to Naples. The city is the Italian equivalent of New Orleans—a festive culture, a tinge of seediness, a swath of poverty, and a ribbon of rich people.
But our first big adventure was a day-trip to Pompeii.
Pompeii was a classy city, populated by Romans. It has Oscan, Greek, and even Etruscan heritage. Then one day Mount Vesuvius went off. The volcano did not in fact erupt in lava that flooded Pompeii in an instant. That is a myth. The killer was the gas and heat. On a strong wind, the gas asphyxiated the population, as did the heat surges. An eruption of tephra buried the city. Later on, the lava did flow, but down the other side of the volcano. The town on that side had time to evacuate.
Because of the tephra, Pompeii is beautifully preserved. It’s a worn, ragged photo of life in AD 79.
We planned to get a guide. On great serendipity, our guide found us. Dr. Ciro, an archaeologist who’s worked on Pompeii and published text used at Stanford, took us on a grand tour. I highly recommend an archaeologist instead of a typical guide. For one, there are a lot of myths around Pompeii that were cooked up for tourists.
Ciro took us through busy streets, pointing out tons of neat stuff. A thing that sticks in my craw is the idea older civilizations were stupid and primitive. Huh? We have no friggin’ clue exactly how Roman cement was made, and those roads still exist today. Damascus steel, Greek fire (not the same as napalm)—technologies we can’t quite master, for all our thingies and advances.
Pompeii has so many neat features.
We had a very friendly (and furry) visitor.
Pompeii also has a lot of preserved art. One interesting bit is this:
This fresco adorned the wall of a rich man’s house. Notice anything? The painting has depth. Depth is often attributed to the Renaissance. That’s incorrect. It was never “lost,” it was banned. The early Church accepted the Platonic view of the universe. Plato once said depth could be deceitful, so the Church just ran with it. Stick to 2D or piss off God. Some early painters to use depth in the Renaissance were actually killed for it.
This is where our guide was invaluable. This sign was beside a door. One might think it was the name of the family. In fact, it was the equivalent of a political lawn sign. People didn’t have front yards and I guess thought flags were for pussies, so they painted their election favorites right on the wall.
This is a classical theater. Originally, all the steps were white. I was amazed how good the acoustics still were.
This is an original gymnasium, an area for athletic training and socializing. It comes from the Greek word for naked.
Pompeii is famous for something else. The bodies. According to hearsay, the area formed by the bodies remained in tact until it was excavated, allowing archaeologists to pump in plaster and see the exact positions they people were in. This is a myth. Dr. Ciro snorted and said, “I made a few of them.” Due to gravity, there was no “cavity” in the earth, just bones. They did try to replicate some of the positions they found the bones in though.
So this woman did not try to hide in a glass box for safety. Closer to reality is the picture below:
Another silly fallacy in history is that people in the old days were more “proper.” Prudery is very cyclical. As a culture, the Romans were a randy bunch. You just need to pop your head inside one of Pompeii’s brothels. Also remember that time you felt like a bamf because you stuck your handprint in wet concrete and marked your street forever? Romans did that too…just not with hands. Warning: slightly raunchy artifacts.
Ok, rein in your titters. Just wait until the Archaeology Museum in Naples!
Walking through Pompeii was amazing. It’s hard to put into words how intimately connected I felt with the long-dead city. It’s the most realistic taste of Rome you’re likely to get. That includes Titus Pullo.
Our sweet driver Amedeo carted us back to Naples in style. Neapolitan adventures ahoy!