April 3, 2007: Naples and Pompeii

                                                                                                April 3, 2007


Naples and Pompeii

Naples is south of Florence, only four hours by train.  The look is far more Mediterranean:  wrought iron balconies, baroque decoration, provision for shade and air.   Naples — built on a hillside sloping steeply to the sea — commands a grand view of its port and the coast. 

Pompeii:  Ancient Elegance 

The legendary first century A.D. ghost city of Pompeii  is in suburban Naples (reachable by light rail) on the Tyrrhennian seacoast.  It was the Roman La Jolla of its day, an elegant seaside residential community.   The remarkable quality is how elegant it still is; if you moved one of the grand Pompeiian residences to twenty-first century La Jolla, retrofitted utilities and plumbing, you’d have an elegant La Jolla house.

            A typically luxurious Pompeiian house had an opening (atrium) to the roof  providing collection of fresh water.  The walls of dining rooms, studies, bedrooms, bathrooms (for bathing —the latrine is separate), and living rooms are decorated with frescoed paintings and frescoed designs.  Floors are mosaic in elegantly small tiles.  Stone columns in the great rooms and the courtyard garden (peristyle) emphasize classical grandeur.  

            Guidebooks and the audioguide lovingly discuss the decor, especially the grandest frescoes or mosaics.   After a particularly glowing description, they then disappoint the visitor by announcing that the fresco/mosaic/sculpture is now in the Archeological Museum in Naples.  A visit to the museum in Naples makes the reason clear.   Pompeii is an open site, easily subject to theft.  The frescoes and mosaics deserve a secure home.  The best of the mosaics are extraordinary.  After two millennia the colors are fresh, the details rich, the rounded three-dimensional quality of the figures and objects represented is remarkable (apparently fourteen centuries ahead of its time, since it was unduplicated in the plastic arts until the Renaissance).  Our view of the museum’s frescoes was truncated in typically Italian fashion.  The principal suite of galleries of Pompeiian frescoes was “chiuso” (closed) because it was “in restauro” (under restoration).  That happens a lot in this part of the world.   

            The museum’s collection of ordinary household items was striking in another way:  how nearly up-to-date they look.   Biscuit baking tins, pitchers, saucepans, all look ready for use right now, though quaintly 19th century, in dark-colored heavy metal.  They’re only eighteen centuries ahead of their time. 

            Three small galleries, “il gabinetto segreto” (the secret cabinet) in the museum’s Pompeiian collection, start with a posted memo announcing that the collection is open only by appointment and only to those of mature years.  Nevertheless, the door is open to all  museum visitors.  The collection is a variety of erotic and phallic representations; mainly elegantly executed erotic frescoes, also including phallic objects (oil lamps!) and sculptures.   Back in Pompeii (presumably well secured to protect its frescoes) is Lupanare (the bordello) with its own frescoed illustrations of coital positions.  The audioguide suggests that these variations are representations of selections from a Greek book of the first century — the audioguide apparently under the impression that Romans lacked erotic imagination. 


Small signs of everyday life in Pompeii: 

                        Crosswalks and wheel grooves on the stone-paved streets.  The streets are paved with well-fitted near-flat paving stones set deeply below the sidewalks (themselves at grade level).  Crosswalks consist of raised stones in the street for crossing the street from one sidewalk to the next without stepping into the street (sometimes filled with rainwater, sewage, horse droppings).  The crosswalks’ raised stones have a few inches of open space between them to allow the passage of chariot wheels.  Grooves worn in the road by years of passing wheels are evident, particularly at the crosswalks where wheels were focused on the narrow passageways. 

                        Lead piping for the municipal water supply.  In addition to individual structures’ water supplies from the atriums, there were public fountains for drinking water provided through an aqueduct.  Lead pipes are there, no longer in use but in visibly sound condition, from a municipal water supply system two millennia old. 


First century Rome never looked better!  


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