As a visitor to Naples, Italy and the surrounding countryside, it’s hard to disregard the presence of Mt. Vesuvius looming everywhere one goes. For example, should one forget for a moment, we have only to step onto the commuter train between Naples and Sorrento, the Circumvesuviana, for the name to remind us. But I suppose residents must surely forget it’s presence, for the most part. Otherwise, how could they live there, despite the evidence in their midst of the destruction of which it’s capable, in the forms of the vivid remains of 2 towns, Pompeii and Herculaneum, excavated from the ash of the eruption of 79 A.D. ? And deadly reminders have come regularly since that most famous eruption, as recently as 1944.
Because of the uncertain weather, I chose Herculaneum, the more intimate of the 2 sites, for a visit one winter afternoon a few days before Christmas. It was almost deserted, something I’d hoped for, the better for some contemplative time travel. One of my favorite genres of literature, when I can have a glimpse of a long ago time in person and in solitude, for me there’s nothing better. A drizzly day in this Roman town beside the Bay of Naples was a perfect opportunity.
The stop on the Circumvesviana line for the town, old and part of the new, is Ercolano Scavi (Herculaneum Excavations). It’s a downhill walk of about 10 minutes from the station, through the modern town, to the excavations. The final approach into history is a straight incline and the view to the right is striking, the Roman town below and the new beyond and above.
Herculaneum is no longer on the water, not unlike the Roman port of Ostia Antica near Rome. But what remains about half a mile from the sea, including the boathouses only discovered in 1982 where citizens took refuge from the pyroclastic flow that buried the town, is devastating evidence of the human disaster that took place here.
Two things, in particular, stood out to me in the beauty of these ruins. Architecturally, it was what was known as a thermopolium, essentially an ancient Roman fast food operation. One need not have much imagination to conjure lines forming where the best hot food was available to take home after the excitement of a particularly contentious chariot race.
Of all the decoration in evidence on the excavated walls of Herculaneum, my very favorite is a small, but highly sophisticated, detail of fresco set just above my eye level. Done all in red, it shows what appears to be a horn with a ribbon tied in a bow. It’s spontaneous execution was clearly done by a quick, sure, master's hand. I don’t believe it’s possible to have been done any more beautifully and it’s these glimpses into the nature of a past civilization that, for me, are most surprising and revealing.
For additional information, please click on the following links:
A PBS investigation, 'Secrets of the Dead'.
From an eyewitness, Pliny the Younger.
For the foodophile-in-residence, PHeymont,
Food in ancient Herculaneum.
More PortMoresby in Italy
And for all of PortMoresby’s contributions, click here.