In AD 79, Mount Vesuvius blew its top. A wall of poisonous gas rolled down the mountain's southern slope, asphyxiating everyone who had failed to flee the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Dirty white ash fell like snow from the sky, slowly burying the city beneath a layer of earth, seven meters thick. Pompeii passed out of memory for centuries; its ruins were not re-discovered until the seventeenth century. Excavations, which were closer to looting than a work of scientific inquiry, began in the eighteenth century. Today, portions of the city are still unexcavated.
For years we have longed to visit Pompeii, but this is the first time we have been far enough south to achieve our dreams. But now our opportunity is at hand, and, on a brightly sunny Sorrento afternoon, we set off to visit the famous lost city. We decided to employ the same strategy we'd used at Ephesus: go later in the day and stay until closing time. Visitor numbers diminish as the afternoon progresses, and the light (for photography) steadily improves as the sun nears the western horizon.
The Circumvesuviana train brought us to the ruins at 2:00 PM. We purchased our tickets, and began the trudge up the hill, entering the city through the Sea Gate. Centuries earlier, the panic-stricken residents of Pompeii would have fled Vesuvius' wrath down this steep slope, cobbled with time-rounded paving stones. Today Vesuvius looks like any other round-shouldered Italian hill. Unlike Mount Etna, which seems an active danger, it is difficult to imagine Vesuvius offering much of a threat. Nevertheless, this mountain is regarded as one of Europe's most dangerous. Its last eruption was in 1944, and it is carefully monitored today. Nearly three million people live near Vesuvius; its next eruption could be catastrophic.
We pick our way through the Basilica, and the Forum with its sparse supply of standing columns. The Pot Shed is adjacent to the Forum, an open pole barn that houses amphorae and statues found on the site. The shed also contains a deeply moving reminder of the tragedy that overcame Pompeii: plaster casts of the body cavities found in the ash.
Many of the residents were not lucky enough to escape Pompeii in time. When Vesuvius belched out its cloud of toxic gas, they fell in the streets and villas of the city. The fall of ash slowly buried their bodies, and then hardened around the corpses. Over the centuries, the bodies decayed and left cavities in the ash. When archaeologists began excavating Pompeii, they realized that these voids in the ash represented bodies, and so they filled them with plaster, creating casts that depict the last moments of the residents of Pompeii. Over a thousand body cavities have been found, and these casts all bear witness to someone's last moment. One woman sits, knees drawn up in the fetal position; another man sprawls on his back, arms outstretched in horror. The casts are evocative, and easily the most poignant mementos of the disaster. The city's calm, orderly streets make it seem like any other Roman ruin; the casts remind me that this city was abruptly snuffed out in a most horrible manner.
Pompeii's size surprises me. I had expected a small town—no more than a few streets and houses. Pompeii is immense; it quickly becomes evident that we are not going to have the time or energy to take in all of its attractions. That task would take days, rather than the hours that remain until closing.
We skirt the western edge of the city, hiking toward the Villa of Mysteries. I am particularly keen to go this way because, according to our map, Cicero's villa is supposed to be near the Villa of Mysteries. I do not know if Cicero ever had a villa in Pompeii (a number of villas seem to have acquired the names of famous Romans), and our guidebook says nothing about the villa apart from noting its presence. The reason for this becomes clear when we reach the site: Cicero's villa consists of a walled meadow. If Rome's greatest citizen had owned a villa here, it is gone now.
The Villa of Mysteries takes its name from the elaborate murals on its drawing room walls which depict the initiation rites of the Cult of Dionysius. The murals, painted on a red background, are incredibly detailed and some of the best examples of first century Roman painting in existence. The great mystery of the villa, as far as I'm concerned, is that there is no guard on the site. These walls are priceless, yet there is no one at hand to make sure a teenager with a pen knife doesn't carve his name into it. Stunning.
But this lackadaisical approach to security extends to all of Pompeii. Everywhere we turn there are valuable paintings and mosaics exposed to the environment or thoughtless fingers, with no hissing docents to protect them. You can't walk into a room in Rome's Capitoline Museum without an overzealous nonna telling you off for standing to close to a statue or daring to use a flash camera. Pompeii, on the other hand, is left completely unprotected.
We wander the rutted streets of the city, looking into the un-roofed villas and shops of the great city. Racing against the clock, we run out of time before we can see everything. I am convinced that there is much we have overlooked. Nevertheless, the team has enjoyed the outing. Pompeii is absolutely brilliant and lives up to its reputation as one of Italy's premier attractions.