The ancient city of Pompeii did not fail to live up to my expectations. 10 km from Vesuvius, it was buried under pumice and rock rather than the lava flow which submerged Herculaneum.
The most impressive thing about the city is its size. Some 45 of its estimated 66 hectares have so far been excavated making it far too big to explore in just one afternoon. This is good, because it means I need to make another visit to see the famous buildings that we missed; the magnificent Amphitheatre, with a capacity of 20,000 murderous spectators; The House of Venus in the Shell, with its beautiful paintings and views, and the Garden of the Fugitives where plaster casts of the bodies of 13 victims still lie where they died, huddled for protection and comfort.
It is not just the obvious things such as shops and houses that bring this ancient city to life; rather it is the abusive graffiti scrawled on the walls of latrines, bars and brothels; the contents of the sewers which show us what people ate; the ornate decorations; and the plaster casts of the dead.
Pompeii expert Mary Beard advises visitors not to get too interested too early,
“take any opportunity offered- if you spot an open door- go through it.” Wise words indeed.
Hardly hesitating at the Forum, the pedestrianised main city square, we ducked into the Temple of Apollo where statues of Apollo and Diana still shoot their bows across a grassy square. Nearby, we squeezed between crowds pushing our cameras through the bars of the Forum Granary, where rack after rack of artifacts from around the city are stored; amphorae, marble statues, garden furniture, and several plaster casts of victims, including one of a dog. It was pure chance that we found ourselves in The House of the Tragic Poet, pushing aside the polythene sealing the door to get a glimpse of its famous mosaic of chained dog and the legend CAVE CANEM; Beware of the Dog.
The Villa of Mysteries lies outside the city looking towards the sea; one of over 100 luxurious villas in the ‘suburbs’, it contains a large fresco depicting a scene of mystery ritual, its colours still bright and details vivid.
The Stabian Baths, were at the heart of Roman life, with their glamorous changing rooms, mosaics, frescos and plunge pools.
We rested a while on the seats of The Grand Theatre, then made our way to the Temple of Isis, where the cult of Egyptian Goddess worshiped; this temple is credited with giving Mozart the idea for The Magic Flute.
The city is filled with restaurants, bakeries, shops, ornate villas, flats, toilets, baths and brothels.
The scale of the roads is impressive, in places almost 3 metres wide. Stepping-stones allowed pedestrians to cross without dirtying their feet. Water towers collected rain, and provided a head of pressure, flushing water down to the gutters and carrying away the dirt and waste from the streets. There are deeply rutted cart tracks in the paving stones and it is postulated that a sophisticated one-way system was in place where the streets were too narrow for carts to pass, a thought that really brings the bustling city to life.
The majority of the artefacts uncovered in Pompeii are now housed in museums; miniature bronze gods and goddesses, magnificent marble sculptures, wind chimes, documents written on wooden tablets, which miraculously can still be read. As a visitor, one feels grateful for this, as a general air of neglect surrounds the place. Unlike Herculaneum the city seems more of a ruin than a snapshot of history. Thin Perspex screens afford little protection to irreplaceable plasterwork, fragile wood, frescos, graffiti and beautiful mosaics from the elements of sun, wind and rain, and to a large extent, from the hoards of tourists and their cameras. Weeds sprout between the ancient stones and bricks causing further damage. It is the minutae of detail that brings to life these ruins of a city, and sadly, these are being lost on a daily basis.
Pompeii wasn’t the city I had expected to see, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed.