The Vesuvius and Pompeii

Vesuvio in eruption

Depiction of Vesuvio in eruption

Today we go to Naples again, we have been away entirely too long. Naples is of course on the sea, and it snuggles up against the Vesuvius. To this proximity to a dangerously active volcano many people attribute many of the character traits that Neapolitans are supposed to have: their fatalism, their penchant for living in the “now” rather than planning for the future, their many religious practices which center on rituals for the dead, their ability to “make do” under adverse circumstances, their irrepressible joyfulness and zest for life. The Vesuvius and its history of eruptions have marked this land and this race indelibly, even as the volcano provided, century after century, the “tufa” out of which the city was built and the volcanic ash that enriched the soil and made it among the most fertile in the world.

The most famous eruption by the Vesuvius, and by far the most lethal, was the one that occurred in 79 AD and that buried the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. These cities lay for centuries under meters of compacted ash, utterly lost to posterity for a millennium and a half, until accidentally rediscovered in 1599. For many decades they were forgotten again, then finally excavations began in earnest (though even later they proceeded by fits and starts.) Even today Pompeii is not fully excavated, and new discoveries are being made all the time.

The historical and cultural impact of the unearthing of Herculaneum and Pompeii can hardly be overestimated. Here were first-century Roman cities that had been kept by the compacted ash in a state of amazing preservation. It was as if time had stopped flowing for these cities when they were buried by the volcano: the solidified blanket of ash and pumice served to shelter their remains from the ravages of the elements and the improvident intervention of man. Upon excavations entire buildings, private homes and public places, shops and baths, wine cellars and temples, could be seen as they had been in the first century, albeit damaged by the eruption. A treasure trove of decorations and everyday objects was found, mosaics that had retained their colors, utensils, bath articles, votive articles, art objects. A whole way of life could be reconstructed by the archaeologists and correlated with ancient writings. Saddest of all, the victims of the eruption could be reconstituted in all their attitudes of despair and futile attempts to escape. The eruption took the life of Pliny the Elder, and was described 25 years later by his nephew, Pliny the Younger, who had witnessed it from Cape Misenum.

The discovery of the buried cities caused a sensation all over Europe. Real and would-be archaeologists flocked to the sites in droves, from England, France, Germany, and elsewhere. Artists, historians, writers, and others, joined in to get a taste of genuine classicism. Today Pompeii and Herculaneum are on the itinerary of practically every tourist who visits this part of Italy.

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