By Antonio Malara
In 2020, the year of the greatest social experiment disguised in the form of a lethal virus for the entire planet, travel has been prohibitive for all of us. However, obeying paradoxical restrictions and without any logic, during the summer we were allowed to move within our country. In the last ten years I have traveled often with my sister and in that anomalous year we had an original idea. We decided to take our parents around Italy, doing exactly the opposite of what they did when we were kids. Thanks to them, we have seen practically all the main beauties of Italy, however there was one important place that I personally had never visited; Pompeii. It was a singular and serious fact that I had visited various Roman cities such as Jerash and Ephesus which, however, were very distant and outside my country. The ridiculous thing was that Pompeii was only a four hour drive from my house. My sister and I planned a little tour that would take us not only to Pompeii but also to Sorrento, Capri and Positano, all of which happen to be places we had never seen despite having been to the Amalfi coast several times. So in September 2020, simply leaving in the morning we headed towards Pompeii which we would have visited in the afternoon.
Pompeii is a large archaeological site which, thanks to the excavations that began in the mid-18th century, brought to light the ruins of the homonymous city. The original city of Pompeii had been destroyed and covered in ash after the eruption of Vesuvius in the year 79. In 1997 the place was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and today it is one of the most visited Italian historical sites. To be honest I have never particularly studied the site of Pompeii, although the place is always popular in the news because archaeologists are always making new discoveries during their excavations. I began to have a little curiosity only when the ruins of Pompeii got more space thanks to the web. What I mean is when it has become easier to share images, they reach us even if we are not directly interested in a particular place. So mine , was more curiosity than a real desire to see a particular place on the site or a specific work as it had been for the Celsus library in Ephesus. With this I do not mean to diminish the beauty of Pompeii compared to other similar sites but in fact this has been my approach.
The exploration inside the site began around 2:26 PM from the entrance of "Porta Marina" and there were three of us, as my father was not interested in the archaeological site because he had seen it several times. Immediately after entering I noticed that the road went downhill and then reared up a steep road. Initially I was afraid that the whole site would be like that and I was worried for my mother who she didn't have the physical preparation to tackle that type of altitude difference. We started the visit right from the valley where there were the "Terme Suburbane", ruins where, however, there were still some frescoes on the walls that I really appreciated. Immediately after having climbed the stone ramp and crossed the gate at the top, I discovered that Pompeii developed on a sort of slight slope, a certainly challenging but not extreme route. For about twenty minutes we walked what was called "Via Marina" a road formed by large stone slabs. This route led us first to see the "Tempio di Venere" and then the "Basilica Pompeiana". These two sites didn't particularly strike me, they were two squares with the remains of columns and parts of a building. In general, more than the ruins themselves, I was attracted by the red color of the stone construction of some columns and part of the walls. Immediately after these sites there was the "Foro di Pompei", this however was very impressive especially for its size. It was a huge rectangular square and in addition to the statue of a Minotaur on one side, there were still tall columns with beams, some of them even forming the upper floor. More than for the remains, the forum was impressive for how large it was, in fact it was necessary to imagine it with the structures intact and to understand how majestic it must have been in its time. In the northern part of the forum was the "Tempio di Giove", even in that case there were only the remains of a few columns, however nearby there were what must have been houses with numbers on the brick pillars. Besides this, one of the interesting things that there were in that area was the perspective on Vesuvius, in fact there with my sister we took some beautiful photos with the volcano in the background.
Exploring "Via delle Terme" I saw the most original thing or at least the one that stimulated me the most. It was the kitchens; large U-shaped blocks covered with marble and with circular holes on the top. I must say that the knowledge of all this belonged to my sister who, as we walked, explained things to me and it was always her who had created our itinerary. However, the more I saw the structures of Pompeii, the more I was disappointed because they didn't seem like things that were so old in time. The buildings were made of stones and flat bricks, like those of many villages in Italy. The peculiarity of Pompeii was that these structures were destroyed. Also near the kitchens we saw “Casa del Poeta Tragico" where at the entrance there was the famous mosaic of the dog with the inscription "Cave Canem" (beware of the dog). The mosaic was protected by glass and in that moment there were some shadows that compromised the correct view. Couldn't take good pictures but enjoyed the mosaic which was bigger than I thought. One thing I didn't appreciate in that area was the "Villa di M. Fabius Rufus", a sort of covered shed under which there were reproductions of the casts of people covered by ash, whose "originals" were exhibited in another place of the site.
Our itinerary was based on detours from the main roads. Being Pompeii built on a grid, we simply turned onto a side street if there was a place of interest. So we saw the "Casa de Fauno", which was one of the villas with an important presence of mosaics, these decorations were probably the most interesting thing about the site because they gave the sensation of something that had been alive and real. The streets and parallels of Pompeii were all very similar including their conservation, the buildings were all destroyed in the same way so it was difficult to identify places. Different thing instead for the "Terme Centrali" a large rectangular outdoor area surrounded by a red brick structure. At the center of this "square" there were two columns arranged on the ground, I personally used them as accessories for photos but I wondered why their arrangement. I don't know how ancient and important they were but I honestly believe they shouldn't have arranged them that way, as if they were construction site material.
Our journey continued between the visit to the mosaics and some glimpses of Vesuvius, along those large-cut stone roads which was one of the things that fascinated me about the site. At some point, my sister and I made a longer detour to visit the "Lupanare di Pompei", a beautiful building that was a sort of night club for adults at the time. When we visited it, it was closed inside where there were frescoes depicting men and women in erotic positions. Our journey took us to what for me was a slightly different place than what was in Pompeii, namely the courtyard with the colonnade of the "Casa dei Cornelii". The geometry, the greenery and the view of Vesuvius from there, gave the place a particular and identifying connotation, which was missing from the rest of the structures we had seen. Nearby were "Teatro Grande" and "Teatro Piccolo", the latter was visible in its entirety and decidedly beautiful because it gave the sensation of miniature. "Teatro Grande" instead could be seen partially, however from the same height difference with a view of the theater, there was also a cool view over the "Quadriportico dei Teatri" a beautiful square where the geometric figure was marked by columns which on one side also supported a still intact portico.
Leaving the area we had to walk quite a bit to reach one of the last destinations which was "Orto dei Fuggiaschi". It was the site where the "original" shapes of the people were kept, people who, while trying to escape the eruption of Vesuvius, had been inexorably covered by ash. These shapes were protected inside a transparent glass structure and in fact they were very similar to the fake ones seen before. Honestly, I don't trust modern science or academics but at the same time I don't have the tools to understand if those silhouettes were really what the "scholars" claim. In modern science it is easy to read of universities that publish opposite claims on the same subject and both are credited as true. Seeing those silhouettes gave me the same impression as when you see those religious relics where it is claimed that they are the result of some miracle or something like that. I limit myself to the rational sensations of my instinct and not to external influences. Honestly, those silhouettes displayed in a workmanlike manner made me doubt more than anything else. The penultimate place we visited was the "Villa di Giulia Felice", a villa with beautiful gardens where there were many walls painted in various colors. Above all, the presence of red and yellow on the walls gave a very personal connotation to the interior of the villa. Furthermore, I like colorful things and seeing them as interior decoration in that context really struck me.
The last work we saw before going out was "Anfiteatro di Pompei", a stone structure with an arched architecture that I really liked from the outside. Above all, the architecture of the stairs was interesting, which had a decorative as well as a functional function. Inside, it was an arena like any other, and many of the stone stalls had collapsed, leaving room for grass to take their place. The visit inside the Pompeii site lasted more than three hours and on leaving we headed towards the cathedral which we reached in about twenty minutes on foot. The structure was very beautiful with a columned architecture present both on the main facade and on the bell tower. Inside, too, the cathedral was decorated with frescoes and was impeccable from an aesthetic point of view. My view inside did not last long, just long enough to admire the structure and take some photos, but I didn't stop to listen to mass or other religious things.
Pompeii was a very interesting visit, which amazed me but in reverse! In fact, except for the streets formed by large stone blocks that were present throughout the site, the rest of the structures left me perplexed. The ancient sites that I had seen up to then were composed of stone blocks, a different construction than that of Pompeii which had houses made of bricks. Probably in other sites there were only ruins of temples and maybe even the common houses were made of more common materials. I don't know but personally the houses of Pompeii reminded me of the more medieval sites and in any case as I said before, structures very similar to Italian villages still well preserved today. Except for the ruins of some columns and the stone blocks that formed the streets, Pompeii didn't give me the impression of being such an ancient city. This was my impression and it is probably for this reason that the site did not excite me too much but at the same time it stimulates me to return to study this aspect. In fact, if I will return to the site, it is precisely on those brick buildings that I will focus more, trying to better understand their structure and capture details that I may have missed. The beauty of exploration as I do it is that I don't let myself be influenced by external "professional" entities but I try to assimilate what rationality and logic communicate to me.
Pictures: Antonio Malara
Camera: Fujifilm XT-3
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