Travel /
Campania

Lessons from Pompeii

 The most living of dead cities

“What does it feel like to live next to something that could explode at any moment?,” my friend asked me. I’m Apulian by origin, but Neapolitan by adoption: I chose to live in Naples, aware of how sweet and bitter the city is at the same time. When I was no longer content with that, or perhaps just to take a risk, I moved to a small town east of the chaotic city, right at the foot of Vesuvius. I enjoy the marvelous view I am incredibly lucky to have from the terrace of my house, and even if sometimes I think it’s crazy to be here, I don’t care. I wonder if the inhabitants of Pompeii would have made the same remark if they had only known that Vesuvius was not just any mountain, but a volcano.

Yes, the Pompeians had no knowledge of living next to a time bomb. They thought it was just a mountain. They grew vines, let their flocks graze there, and went hunting. The occasional earthquakes that occurred were certainly not attributed to the future eruption that would destroy and bury them for almost 1,500 years. Pliny the Younger, a noble Roman patrician, is the only person to offer an eyewitness account of the event. After witnessing the eruption from the Gulf of Naples at the home of his uncle Pliny the Elder (who later lost his life in an attempt to rescue Pompeiians from the coast), he wrote to his friend Tacitus about what happened: 

Una nube si levava in alto, ed era di tale forma ed aspetto da non poter essere paragonata a nessun albero meglio che a un pino. Infatti, drizzandosi come su un tronco altissimo, si allargava poi in una specie di ramificazione; e questo perché, suppongo io, sollevata dal vento proprio nel tempo in cui essa si formava, poi, al cedere del vento, abbandonata a sé o vinta dal suo stesso peso, si diffondeva ampiamente per l’aria dissolvendosi a poco a poco, ora candida, ora sordida e macchiata, secondo che portasse con sé terra o cenere. –Epistula VI 16

[A cloud arose overhead, and was of such form and appearance that it could not be compared to any tree better than to a pine. For, rising as it did upon a very high trunk, it spread out into a kind of branching; and this, I suppose, because it was lifted up by the wind at the very time it was formed, and then, when the wind gave way, left to itself or overcome by its own weight, it spread widely through the air, dissolving little by little, now white, now sordid and stained, according as it carried soil or ashes with it]. –Fuga da Pompei (Daniella Morelli)  

Surely it must have been both a beautiful and terrible sight, as we can understand from his words. Pliny the Younger called Pompeii “the most living of dead cities”. Why? Visiting the ruins of the city, one doesn’t have the impression of walking in a ghost town, but of visiting a place that is alive and vivid, albeit crystallised in time and untouched by the years. The nature of the eruption of 79 A.D. was of such violence and speed that Pompeii couldn’t defend itself, couldn’t rebel, and so everything that was there remained intact, waiting. One of the most incredible aspects of the city is its colours: despite being buried under tens of metres of ash and pumice for thousands of years (a common misconception is that the cause of Pompeii’s demise was lava, but this magma never reached the city), its dwellings retain the cheerfulness and joviality of the past. The ancient city has even given its name to one of the most beautiful shades of red in the world–the so-called Pompeian red. The colour of the walls of the noble houses, Pompeian red is an inorganic pigment composed of iron oxide and is immediately recognizable by its deep, sensual tones. A byproduct of the cinnabar industry, the colour was expensive to produce and was used only to adorn the homes of patricians, some of which can still be visited today, bearing witness to the grandeur and beauty with which its owners were surrounded. (Since cinnabar contains considerable amounts of mercury, the colour was gradually replaced by vermilion, red ochre, Mars red and Pozzuoli red. The latter two are mixtures of iron oxides and hydroxides.)

The Hall of the Triclinium of the Villa of the Mysteries, for example, has frescoes that are still practically perfect, revealing unequalled artistic skills. Divided into nine different scenes, the fresco, which runs the length of the wall, represents the stages of a bride’s preparation for her wedding or–a more seductive hypothesis–the initiation of a young woman into mystery rites of Dionysus. This artful expertise disappeared with the collapse of the Roman Empire and it wasn’t until the Renaissance that we returned to this ancient splendour. How strange would it be for us “modern” people to live in houses with coloured walls, embellished with images and human figures telling both real and imagined stories? What have we lost over time and why have we deprived ourselves of this beauty that was so obvious at the time?

Of course, it must be noted that such works of art were almost always exclusive to the wealthy, just as today’s millionaires live surrounded by paintings, statues and antiques. However, anyone who has visited the ruins of Pompeii knows what I am talking about: that feeling of lost beauty, which is felt in every corner of the city but has slipped through our fingers. It’s like a guest accompanying us on our journey, whispering, “Look how beautiful I was. Look how unlucky I was. All is not lost, because time has preserved me.” This feeling is what Pliny the Younger refers to when he describes Pompeii as “the most living of dead cities”: delicate and ruined though it is, it’s not without soul. Incidentally, the city has not yet fully emerged from its hibernation: there are still hectares and hectares of hidden wonders waiting to be unearthed.

Also of great importance are the ruins of Herculaneum, a city hit shortly after Pompeii, and the archaeological excavations at Stabia and Oplontis. There are two iconic domus in the latter two locations (Villa San Marco and Villa di Poppea, respectively) which provide excellent examples of the pomp, wealth, and refined taste of the powerful people of that time. We often hear that the mastery of the past can never be equaled again; visiting such rich and majestic sites does make one think that these words are true. So, what do Pompeii and its tragic end teach us? Somehow it suggests that we should seize the moment and rejoice in the richness of the present, without letting ourselves be taken in by fear of the future, which can hide dangers that we will never be able to foresee. After multiple visits to Pompeii and my time living at the foot of Vesuvius, I’ve realized that it’s impossible to come to terms with beauty and the transience of time. I choose to stay in a place steeped in history: it may be complicated and chaotic, but it’s full of inspiration, breathtaking views, and vitality. And perhaps this is what fascinates me about Pompeii: I can experience an era that has all but disappeared. Only in the ruins of this city, in those 44 square kilometres of UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1997, does this ancient beauty proudly endure.

 

“Qui su l’arida schiena
Del formidabil monte
Sterminator Vesevo,
La qual null’altro allegra arbor nè fiore,
Tuoi cespi solitari intorno spargi,
Odorata ginestra”.

Giacomo Leopardi

Uno degli aspetti più incredibili della città sono i suoi colori: nonostante siano state sepolte sotto decine di metri di cenere e pomice per migliaia di anni (errore comune è pensare che la causa della fine di Pompei sia stata lava, ma questa non arrivò mai in città) le sue dimore conservano l’allegria e la giovialità del passato, tanto allegra e tanto gioviale che ha persino regalato il nome a una delle tonalità di rosso più belle al mondo, il cosiddetto rosso “pompeiano”. È il colore delle pareti delle case nobili, un pigmento inorganico composto da ossido di ferro, immediatamente riconoscibile dalle sue tonalità profonde, sensuali. Adornava le dimore dei patrizi e in alcune di queste, visitabili tutt’oggi, testimonia la grandezza e la bellezza di cui erano circondati i suoi proprietari.

Si resta attoniti nel visitare la Sala del Triclinio di Villa dei Misteri ad esempio, i cui affreschi sono praticamente perfetti, immersi in uno sfondo rosso che lascia emergere una perizia artistica inarrivabile. Il crollo dell’Impero Romano infatti inghiottirà tali perizie e dovremo attendere l’arrivo del Rinascimento per poter tornare a quegli antichi fasti.

Quanto sarebbe strano per noi, uomini “moderni”, vivere in una casa con le pareti colorate, abbellite da immagini e figure umane che raccontano delle storie, delle trame fantasiose e reali? Cosa abbiamo perso nel corso del tempo e perché ci siamo privati di quella bellezza tanto scontata all’epoca?

Bisogna dire che tali opere d’arte erano quasi appannaggio esclusivo dei facoltosi, come oggi i milionari vivono circondati da dipinti, statue e pezzi d’antiquariato, ma chi ha visitato gli scavi di Pompei sa di cosa parlo: quella sensazione di bellezza perduta, che ci è scivolata dalle dita e che si percepisce in ogni angolo della città, pare un ospite che ci accompagna nel cammino, che ci sussurra “guarda com’ero bella, guarda quanto sono stata sfortunata, ma non tutto è perduto perché il tempo mi ha preservata.

È a questo che si riferisce Plinio il Giovane quando descrive Pompei come “la più viva delle città morte”: per quanto sia delicata e in rovina, non è però priva d’anima. Tra l’altro non è ancora emersa del tutto, restano nascosti ancora ettari ed ettari di meraviglie in attesa di essere riportate alla luce.

Di notevole importanza sono anche le rovine di Ercolano, città colpita poco dopo Pompei, e gli scavi archeologici di Stabia e Oplontis. Due le domus simbolo di queste ultime località, rispettivamente Villa San Marco e la Villa di Poppea, esempi dello sfarzo, della ricchezza e del gusto sopraffino dei potenti dell’epoca. Spesso si sente dire che la maestria del passato non si potrà eguagliare mai più e visitando siti tanto ricchi e maestosi fa davvero pensare che queste parole abbiano un fondo di verità.

Cosa ci hanno trasmetto Pompei e la sua tragica fine? In qualche modo ci suggerisce di cogliere l’attimo, di gioire della ricchezza del presente, senza lasciarsi prendere dalla paura del futuro che può nascondere dei pericoli che non possiamo prevedere.

Dopo aver visitato Pompeii più volte, ed aver vissuto ai piedi del Vesuvio ho capito che è impossibile fare i conti con la bellezza e la caducità del tempo. Ho scelto di vivere in un luogo ricco di storia: può essere complicato e caotico ma è ricco di ispirazione, panorami mozzafiato e vitalità.

Forse è questo ciò che mi affascina: posso vivere ancora una volta un’epoca ormai scomparsa. Solo nelle rovine della città, in quei 44 chilometri quadrati patrimonio mondiale UNESCO dal 1997, questa antica bellezza perdura orgogliosamente.

“Qui su l’arida schiena
Del formidabil monte
Sterminator Vesevo,
La qual null’altro allegra arbor nè fiore,
Tuoi cespi solitari intorno spargi,
Odorata ginestra”.

Giacomo Leopardi