I met a traveler from an antique land….

June 2, 2009 at 1:56 am (books, Italian journey, Italy, Travel) ()


One of my mother’s many gifts to me was a sense of the richness of the artistic and historical heritage of Western Europe. Her own first trip to Italy, undertaken with my father when they were both in their forties, was for her, a life changing experience. She fell instantly in love with the country. (This access of affection was greatly aided by the fact that the day before my parents were to leave for home, their driver stopped the car so that he could purchase a bouquet of roses, which he then placed in my mother’s arms. )

I have been hearing and reading about Pompeii since I was a small child. Going there was the realization of a long held dream. So what was the experience actually like?

Once again, it was a beautiful day – sunny, with soft breezes and virtually no humidity. (The level of moisture in the atmosphere is something we denizens of the greater D.C. area, with its notoriously muggy summers, always take note of.) As we descended from the bus, we were engulfed by…wonder? grandeur? No – actually, by vendors selling every tchotchke and confection imaginable. It was just one grand gelato-fueled bazaar!

Well, okay, a guy/gal has to earn a living…



We were soon met by our guide, Sasha, who took us away from the present and into the past – but again, not quite. Sasha assured us of our good fortune that day: it was warm but not hot, and there  were no cruise ships in port disgorging their hordes into our midst. (This latter was something I had not even thought to worry about.) Still, many people wandered the streets, chatting and chasing after children, as though it were the most ordinary place for a Sunday outing.

Our own group consisted of some thirty individuals, and despite Sasha’s best efforts, I frequently felt as though we were being herded rather than led. I had done much reading to prepare for this day; still, I had trouble imposing a coherent order on what I was seeing. Most crucial, I was finding elusive the sense of wonder I had counted on feeling.

On the other hand, after we left, after I looked at my pictures, after I had a chance to reflect on where I had just been, the streets I had just walked, the faded frescoes, the indentations left on the cobbles by wagon wheels, the plaster casts that brought the dead back to life and cried out for our pity – then, I was, and still am, wonder struck.

(I would love to be standing in the ruins at dusk, alone or with one or two silent companions. I imagine the ghosts of antiquity  rising up and passing before me, even through me, smiling and sociable, oblivious of the terrible fate that awaits them.)













I am amazed by these last three – actual frescoes, or what remains of them, in the very place where they were painted two thousand years ago.


streets1 streets2

In one direction, I saw strolling day trippers and the looming volcano. In the opposite direction, a street where entry was prohibited.



ongoing2These two shots are of ongoing excavations.

And finally, casts of the bodies of the dead of Pompeii:


body2A photo very like the above appears in Mary Beard’s book. She says of it: “The plaster casts made from the bodies of the victims are constant reminders of their humanity – that they were just like us. This memorable cast of a man dying, with his head in his hands, has been placed for safe-keeping in a site storeroom. He now seems to be lamenting his own imprisonment.”


Books that provided helpful background for this visit:


herculaneumpompeii1 This is the massive, lavishly illustrated catalog that accompanied the exhibit of the same name at the National Gallery that Jean and I had the  great good fortune to attend in March. (The painting at the top of this post comes from this catalog.)

Two novels I enjoyed previously and now would like to re-read:  harris and nemesis. This latter is the second entry in Steven Saylor’s marvelous Roma Sub Rosa series of historical mysteries. If memory serves, much of this novel’s action takes place in the region surrounding the Bay of Naples.


“The Bay of Naples is where the science of geology started,” Richard Fortey informs us, in the fascinating first chapter of his book: fortey.  Click here for a reading of Pliny the Younger’s remarkable letter to Tacitus describing what he experienced on the day Vesuvius erupted.

(A brief but interesting digression: at the beginning of our tour, as our bus took us into Naples, we saw several major road construction projects that were strangely silent. Linda explained to us that work on a subway system had been halted due to major archaeological finds that the digging had brought to light. One involves an Olympic style games competition founded in Naples in the first century AD and called the Sebasta. )

Finally, I’d like to recommend a wiki site called AD 79: Destruction and Re-discovery. It is a goldmine of information on all aspects of the eruption, the initial plundering upon rediscovery, and finally the systematic archaeological investigations.


In the first chapter of Herculaneum, Joseph Jay Deiss seeks to recreate that fateful morning of August 24, 79 AD:

“The citizens, this day as every day in Herculaneum arose at dawn and leisurely went about their accustomed affairs. Birds sang in cages. Lizards basked in the torrid sun. Cicadas rasped unceasingly in the cypress trees. The ninth day before the Calends of September, according to the Roman calendar, seemed destined to be essentially no different from any other of that untroubled summer….

Near the Forum a shipment of expensive glassware had just arrived and was placed under a colonnade. The glass was of beautiful design, sure to be the subject of admiration at the next dinner party. A special case carefully packed with straw shielded it from breakage. So eager were the owners to see their newest treasure that luncheon was temporarily ignored and a servant was ordered to open the case at once. The first protecting layer of straw was torn away, revealing a delicate glass ladle.

Suddenly, without warning, a violent cracking sound split the air. The earth heaved and shook. Enormous bull-like roars seemed to come directly out of the earth itself. The yellow sunlight turned abruptly to a brassy overcast. Acrid sulphuric odors choked nostrils. From the mountain a gigantic cloud in the shape of a mushroom billowed into the sky.

People screamed that Vesuvius had exploded. All who could abandoned everything and ran wildly into the streets. It was the seventh hour, Roman time.

A catastrophe unparalleled had begun.

The Eruption of Vesuvius - JMW Turner

The Eruption of Vesuvius - J M W Turner


  1. valentinoswife said,

    It can be so disconcerting to follow in a tour. We have been to Pompeiia few times – and we avoided tour groups – I always prefer to prepare ahead of time reading — and then we break it down into what section we would most like to see to bolster what we read. It is about impossible to ‘tour’ aplace like Pompeii in one day and have the ability to respond to what one is seeing, let alone feel the experience. For myself, I liked breaking it down into ,multiple visits over a few years because I began to realize more fully the beauty of Pompeii as it was – and as it is now — and to be able to experience the horros of what these people must have experienced that fateful era! In any event even if one is not a frequent traveler that can repeat the visit to a place such as this, doi not try to see it all in one night.

    • Roberta Rood said,

      I have been meaning to thank you for this thoughtful response to my post. It has much truth and common sense in it, though I don’t know if it applies directly to me: I don’t know whether I will be returning to Italy in this lifetime, never mind getting back to Pompeii…

  2. Bonnie(valentinoswife) said,

    Hi – all we can ever do is pray we get a chance to return someplace like Italy – but even if we can’t spend repeat visits to a special place, it is always best to remember to not try to “See Europe” in only a few days – it is better even within the US, or any place really — to break it into manageable bites and enjoy it that way!

  3. The eternal fascination of Rome « Books to the Ceiling said,

    […] – never to the southern portions of the country. I was pretty certain that I would never see Pompeii. I was wrong – gloriously […]

  4. Alice said,

    It was real tragedy in Pompeii… but thanks that we could meet better this antique culture…

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