“Pompeii is no longer a buried city. It is a city of hundreds and hundreds of roofless houses, and a tangled maze of streets where one could easily get lost, without a guide, and have to sleep in some ghostly palace that had known no living tenant since that awful November night of eighteen centuries ago.” Mark Twain – The Innocents Abroad
The next day we were back on the road, this time with a trip to the ancient city of Pompeii so after breakfast and picking up our lovingly prepared packed lunches in their brown paper bags we waited for the coach to arrive to drive us there.
The site of Pompeii is a ruined and part buried Roman city near Naples in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the commune of Pompeii. It is part of a larger Vesuvius National Park and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO twenty years after our visit in 1997. It is the most popular and most visited tourist attraction in Italy with two and a half million visitors a year and I have now been lucky enough to visit the famous excavation twice. The first time was with dad on this visit to Italy and the second time was nearly thirty years later with my son Jonathan in 2004.
It was only a shortish drive to the historical site and we arrived in the late morning and after going through the entrance gates waited just inside by the souvenir shops to be joined by our guide for the day. It was a warm day already and when she arrived she was under the shade of an umbrella, which she subsequently used as a means of group identification and we set off into the ruined city.
At the time of the eruption the city is estimated to have had approximately twenty thousand inhabitants but Pompeii, along with nearby Herculaneum, was completely buried and destroyed, during a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius over two days beginning on 24th August 79. The volcano buried the City under a layer of ash and pumice many metres deep and it was lost for nearly one thousand seven hundred years before its accidental rediscovery in 1748. Since then, its excavation has provided a detailed insight into the life of a city in an area in which many wealthy Romans had their holiday villas at the height of the Roman Empire.
At around one o’clock in the afternoon on August 24th, Vesuvius, which had been dormant for centuries, began spewing ash and volcanic stone thousands of meters into the sky. When it reached the boundary between the troposphere and the stratosphere, the top of the cloud flattened leading the Roman historian Pliny the Younger, who was observing from a safe distance across the Bay of Naples to describe it as resembling a stone pine tree.
For people in Pompeii, who had no idea what was about to happen, the bad news was that the prevailing winds were blowing towards the south-east which caused the volcanic material to fall primarily on the city and the area surrounding it and the residents were covered in up to twelve different layers of ash, pumice and soil.
According to Pliny the volcano burst open with an ear splitting crack and then smoke, mud, flames and burning stones spewed from the summit of the mountain, sending a rain of ash and rock through the surrounding countryside. The mud seeped down the sides of Vesuvius, swallowing nearby farms, orchards and villas and basically anything else unfortunate enough to be in the way. Adding to the destruction were poisonous vapours that accompanied the falling debris and it was these fumes that first caused deliriousness in their victims, and then suffocated them.
There is no doubt that Pompeii is a fabulous place to visit with many marvellous houses and buildings and so big that it is impossible to do it all in one day and it is an interesting fact that today visitors can actually only see one third of the site that was open for viewing in 1976.
We saw the Roman Forum and the administrative buildings, the public baths, the brothels, the shopping centres and the outdoor theatres. Most of the priceless exhibits have been removed of course to the museum in Naples but there were some copies of the most famous and there are still wall frescoes and paintings to admire. In 1860 an archaeologist called Fontana found some of the famous erotic frescoes and, due to the strict modesty prevalent during his time, quickly reburied them in an early attempt at archaeological censorship in case anyone should be offended.
Even then there were some rooms that women visitors were not allowed to enter just in case the paintings caused offence but the men were allowed to go in and once inside the guide explained in more detail that this was actually because the impressively large penis on one particular statue had been broken off so many times by excitable female visitors that they had had to be prohibited from entering this building. I don’t know whether that was true or not!
“It was a quaint and curious pastime, wandering through this old silent city of the dead–lounging through utterly deserted streets where thousands and thousands of human beings once bought and sold, and walked and rode, and made the place resound with the noise and confusion of traffic and pleasure.”Mark Twain
For the first time ever in a foreign country this was a truly excellent experience and simply one of the best places possible to visit. I had chosen Italy for the holiday because I had studied Italian history at University, written my thesis on the nineteenth century Piedmontese Prime Minister Massimo d’Azeglio and had taught myself to read Italian to study his autobiographical notes. I had acquired a passion for the place and now at last I was here and Pompeii was just absolutely wonderful.