Monday, May 2, 2011

A day in Pompeii

 This morning, we had a winding drive back down the mountain and Ashley remembered how carsick she gets -- poor thing!  But after a while we hit the autostrada (not literally, although in Italy, one never knows!), and it got better.

We went to Pompeii for the day.  When we got there, the line for tickets caused my parents much dismay.  My mother cleverly arranged a tour for not much more than the cost to enter solo, and off we went -- avoiding the wait!  Our guide, Luca, was very informative.  It certainly helped that his English was very good (given that this was an English language tour...).  We saw many interesting things, although we didn't cover more than about half of the area.
My dad, the intrepid explorer, looking cute.
Pompeii was a town with a population the size of Todi's (about 17,000) and it was a seaport.  But the eruption laid down so much matter that it is now about 1 1/2 kilometers inland.  Wow.  You can still see the docking stations for boats at the edge of town.
The little projections with holes are docking points for the boats -- tie your ropes up there.  Current ground level in Pompeii is about 20 feet above that, I'm guessing.

Pompeii actually is sited on a hill that was the result of a previous eruption, and has little to no soil -- it's all on rock.  That being the case, the inhabitants had a major problem: drainage.  They did run plumbing under the sidewalks in some locations to take care of the icky stuff, and many houses had cesspits that they emptied periodically to (you guessed it) fertilize their crops.  But during the rainy season (winter), the roads often became rivers.  For this reason, they had large stepping stones across the streets.
One of the many sets of stepping stones across the street.  Some were much higher.

Eleanor's in a rut right now.
This was a 1-to-2 pipe join.  They put cement and terra cotta over the join because if there was a leak, the terra cotta would darken -- providing a visual cue to repair the joint!

The entire town was frescoed, so what we see today is something the guide calls "a lady without her clothes."  However, we did see portions of frescoes here and there.  They were used as signage.  Although everyone spoke Latin, it was highly dialectical.  This was problematic for trade, so they used what amounted to a visual menu:  you want fish?  Point to the picture.  You get the idea.  The red was made with a mixture of animals' blood and cinnabar.  The blue was from ground shells.
An option on the menu of a local brothel.

Another option.

Another menu item...
Just for completeness, this is a cubicle in the brothel.
Gee willikers, how many options ARE there?

Because a snake sheds its skin, it symbolizes new life -- hence its use in medical iconography.  This was on the outside of a pharmacy                  .

An important aspect of Roman life is the concept of public bathing.  There were not typically baths in people's houses; instead, the Romans went to the public baths daily.  There were four public baths in Pompeii, including one right near the docks.  Do you think the smelly sailors were ready to get clean after months on a tiny boat?  I can practically smell them from here!

Steam was piped through the walls (I think this is correct), warming them in the caldarium.  The ceiling was intentionally shaped to bring the condensate back through these hollow walls.  The caldarium was essentially a steamroom with a hot tub.  You could lean against the walls & chat or you could have a nice hot soak.
This was a water fountain in the baths for rehydration.  Then you go back & sweat some more!

Part of a frieze in the tepidarium of the main public baths.
As well as a lack of bathrooms in the private houses, it was atypical to have a kitchen.  As a result, they had a large number of fast-food joints.  Think McDonald's in 79 AD.  And bakeries...but they had unleavened bread that was pretty thick & chewy.

The local "joint" for fast food.

A bakery oven.

This is one of the few home kitchens. 
Of course, entertainment was an important part of daily life, too.  They had two theatres and one amphitheatre.  The difference between the two is that an amphitheatre is in the round (think stadium).  We did not see the amphitheatre, but we did see the other two.
A view of the larger theatre.  There was a wooden stage.  The center is the orchestra pit, and the lower seats are for important people.  This theatre has been restored and is in use today.

The lower section was marked by the eagle's claw (showing power) while the upper section (barely visible behind the claw) shows a muscleman -- doing the "heavy lifting" -- denoting the section for the working classes.

There were many beautiful villas, but also a fair number of working houses.  The shops would have had timbered stories above the lower stone walls.  They were used to house the family.  Alternatively, the rooms above were let out to sailors.  If the sailors "forgot" to pay their rent, then the wooden ladders to the upper floors were removed and the tenants held hostage.  Kind of like the opposite of an eviction.

Frescoes in the atrium of a villa.  The hole in the ceiling channeled rainwater to a basin in the floor and thence to a cistern for later use.  There were eels put in the cisterns, because they kept the water fresh somehow?  I'm not really clear on this part of it.

More frescoes in a villa.
Phallic symbols showed luck & fertility and were used on wealthy people's houses.

A mosaic floor in a wealthy person's villa.  The pieces are about 5 mm on a side.
We saw several of the bodies that had been found there.  The way this worked was as follows:  the person died as a result of asphyxiation from being buried in ash.  Then the body decomposed.  However, because of its own peculiar properties, the ash hardened into a quasi-cementitious material.  This left a hole in the ash that was the shape of the body.  When archaeologists were excavating, they probed the area carefully.  If they found hollows, they pumped liquid plaster into the hollows and let it cure.  Once cured, they removed the ash cast.  In most cases, they found nothing interesting: a clump of grass, etc.  But they also found a number of bodies, including that of a dog, and (curiously) a door that did not ignite during the initial pyroclastic flow.  The body casts were really quite poignant:  some were huddled in a prayer-like position; others appeared to be trying to crawl or shelter.  The dog was trying desperately to get out of its collar.
Part of Apollo's temple, which was left.  Pompeii was a Greek city before being taken by the Romans.

After our tour, we had a lunch break in a lovely park-like area next to the main theatre.  Then we headed to La Villa dei Misteri.  It's a place whose frescoes are shown in all the art history books in the world, I'd bet.  While much of the building was damaged, there are nonetheless some fabulous areas.  Part of the reason is that the frescoes were covered with ash (not lava), and the polished surface of the fresco meant that the ash didn't actually stick all that well.
A tower plus the defensive wall.

A view of Pompeii over one of the walls.  And this is just a fraction of it.

Another view of Pompeii over the defensive wall.
One of the mosaic floors in the Villa Dei Misteri

Graffiti in the Villa Dei Misteri (it was covered in plexiglas, so I think it dates to the time period...)
Frescoes in the Villa Dei Misteri.
Fresco showing the command of perspective in the Villa Dei Misteri.

Floor in the Villa Dei Misteri
This jar (in the ground for cooling purposes) was about 4' across.
Courtyard in the Villa Dei Misteri
Yet another floor in the Villa Dei Misteri
There was an earthquake in 62 AD.  When they rebuilt, they used this technique to help during future seismic disturbances. 
And then the columns were plastered.


A tomb in Pompeii
On the way back to the house, we decided that we would like grilled chicken and salad at home.  My dad had seen a place in the village that advertised grilled chicken, so that made everything easy.  After a stop in the neighboring town (the one that actually has shops), we stopped at the chicken place.  We were reminded very quickly of where we are:  the man only does chickens on Saturday and Sunday.  However, my mother went to the restaurant where we ate last night, and asked him to grill the sausages she'd bought from the chicken man.  Since it was raining, I made the additional suggestion of getting him to deliver it -- bingo!  As I write this, Ashley's potatoes are sizzling in the pan, and the sausages just arrived. 
Believe it or not, this is a smoked mozzarella.
A town?  A state of mind?  Who knows?



p.s. I posted some pretty pictures below of flowers and landscapes, but no captions.  Sorry about the lousy formatting, but I'm tired of fighting with graphics at the moment...



  1. Wow! Marathon post! Thank you for the tour.

  2. You made it! I know that had to take some time to label (notice that few of my pics are ever labelled.)

    I am glad you got the tour. Even though you and Eleanor and Florence had been there before, I can see where understanding what you are looking at could be a problem.

    I loved the tour. Have a great time at Herculeum tomorrow.


  3. Awesome pictures and description of Pompeii. I so want to go there! I noticed an awful lot of brothel pictures...what's that all about?! :)
    on another note, tell Jeremy that William likes soup too....maybe Grandfather will take the two of them to the Oak Grove market for lunch sometime. They can all have a nice large bowl of soup!
    And btw, interesting shape on that mozzarella. Looks like they'd been looking at the symbols of prosperity on the sides of the houses.
    I have poison ivy on my much fun. Not.
    Have fun, and we'll see you Sunday.