“We pass through centuries, and we learn nothing.” – A Question of Belief, by Donna Leon

September 9, 2010 at 1:06 pm (Book review, books, Italy, Mystery fiction)

It’s summer in Venice. Things are slow at the questura. The heat is so intense, even the criminal element is completely enervated. Commissario Guido Brunetti cannot wait to escape from the city with his family. It will be a well earned vacation, far from the tourist crowds, the oppressive temperatures, the evil-smelling waterways. They are going to the mountains! Cool air, gorgeous scenery, time to relax and read…

Such a beautiful dream.

At times, though, the rank of Commissario places a heavy load on Brunetti’s shoulders – never more so than when a murder occurs on his beat, at a most inopportune moment. The beautiful dream must, alas, be deferred.

The victim, Araldo Fontana, is a mild-mannered civil servant, a man in his fifties who works at the law courts and lives with his mother. A seemingly innocuous individual. Who would desire the death of such a person? Meanwhile there’s another problem. It involves the aunt of Brunetti’s second in command and close friend, Isspettore Lorenzo Vianello. It seems that Vianello’s beloved aunt has lately been pulling large amounts of money out of her savings and giving it to some sort of New Age Healer. You’re a policeman, Lorenzo, his cousins plead with him – do something!

Much have I traveled in the realms of  Leon’s Venice…always this storied city comes alive in her writing. Donna Leon has lived in La Serenissima for over twenty years. Her take on her adopted home is striated with ambivalence. On the one hand, she is angered by corruption, incompetence, and indifference; on the other, she’s inspired by beauty, singularity, and history. And of course, there’s the fabulous food, loveingly described – no ambivalence there!

In Guido Brunetti, Donna Leon has created a modern day knight: a man of goodness, decency, and compassion who strives daily with bureaucratic rigidity, self-indulgence, and downright wickedness. One senses that for him, loving his natal city is akin to loving a wayward but irresistibly charming child. Its virtues outweigh its defects. But not by much. And Brunetti’s situation is made all the more trying by his immediate superiors, who are in thrall to Venice’s high and mighty and who, instead of trying to help him, seem at every turn to make his job more difficult.

But still he perseveres. He does have sources of support. At work, he can always rely on the staunch Vianello and the incredibly resourceful, exotic, and faintly mysterious Signorina Elettra. At home, he is truly blessed. His wife Paola, a university professor and ardent Henry James reader, is astute, passionate, and utterly loyal. Children Raffi and Chiara are every parent’s dream: not perfect – but very, very good.

Guido Brunetti is a philosopher-detective, a genuine intellectual whose idea of leisure reading includes Tacitus and the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius. He has a wonderful mind; I love the way Leon makes us privy to his ruminations:

He had read so widely in the Greek and Roman historians that he found nothing strange at all in the desire to consult the oracles to fin some way to decipher the messages of the gods. Whether it was the liver of a freshly killed chicken or the patterns made in the air by a flock of birds, the signs were there for those who could interpret them: all that was necessary was someone willing to believe the interpretations, and the deal was done. Cumae or Lourdes; Diana of Ephesus or the Virgin of Fatima: the mouth of the statue moved, and the truth came forth.

Brunetti can seem cynical and world weary, not without cause. But he is also respectful of people’s needs, in particular their need to believe in something larger than themselves. He himself has the same need.

In an effort to find out more about Araldo Fontana, Brunetti and Vianello talk to his cousin Giorgio. This interview brings forth one of the saddest, most poignant conversations I have ever encountered in fiction, rendered as it is in Leon’s flawless, pointillist prose. Once again I was put in mind of Virgil’s phrase lacrimae rerum – the tears of thing, tears of the world – tears for the world, perhaps – our fallen but still striving world.

Donna Leon


While reading A Question of Belief, I was reminded of Joan Silber’s short story “Gaspara Stampa” (in Ideas of Heaven) and Andrea di Robilant’s tale of his illustrious forebears, A Venetian Affair.


The soundtrack suggestion for this post is the music of  one of the greatest composers of the Italian Baroque period, Antonio Vivaldi.

Permalink 3 Comments

The eternal fascination of Rome

August 24, 2010 at 9:43 pm (Book review, books, History, Italy)

It all (re)started with my first visit, last year, to chaotic, fabulous Naples – Napoli, as it is known in Italy. But the city has had other names: it was founded in the 700s BC by the Greeks. It was then Neapolis – “new city.”

But no – before that, there was Robert Harris’s riveting novel. I read Pompeii shortly after it came out in 2002. Like many the world over, I’ve been intrigued by the story of this lost and resurrected city since I was a small child. I had been to Italy several times, when I was in my twenties, but not since; while there, I had been to Rome, Florence and Venice – never to the southern portions of the country. I was pretty certain that I would never see Pompeii. I was wrong – gloriously wrong!

But I must go back further…to the appearance, in 1991, of Roman Blood, the first book in Steven Saylor’s superb series, Roma Sub Rosa.

Actually, now that I give it careful consideration, I think I know when and where I first became fascinated by ancient Rome. It was when Mrs. Gelber, my ninth grade Latin teacher, had us do projects concerning the Romans. I took two small plastic dolls and dressed them up in togas. My satisfaction with this effort was all out of proportion to the rather modest effect I achieved. Mrs. Gelber, an inspiring teacher if there ever was one, praised my efforts nonetheless. From then on, I was well and truly hooked.

Of course, I can provide no image of these small effigies. Nevertheless, they are clearly etched in my mind’s eye.

Recently, I listened to Part One of The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome. These lectures are given by Professor Garrett Fagan, an Associate Professor of Classics and Ancient Mediterranean Studies and History at Penn State University. (Professor Fagan is from Ireland; this makes him an especial pleasure to listen to on this recorded course.)

I’m also thinking and writing about Rome because I’ve just finished listening to Conspirata, the second novel in Robert Harris’s projected trilogy based on the life of Cicero. The events are narrated by Cicero’s slave Tiro. Tiro took dictation for Cicero and managed his garden as well his finances. He made himself  quite indispensable to his master and was ultimately freed in 53 BC.  Despite his new status, Tiro continued to work for Cicero. (The audiobook versions of the novels in this series are read superbly by Simon Jones.)

The following commentary is from an article on Cicero by William Harris, Emeritus Professor at Middlebury College:

Tiro, a diligent slave perfected a system of Latin shorthand, which served to preserve fairly accurately Cicero’s speeches. A number of medieval MSS in “Tironian annotation” survive, containing much of the master’s speeches and perhaps more than we are aware of, since the specialization required for a study of this esoteric field deters all but the most laborious of scholars. The list of extant speeches is immense, the text fills several volumes.

The story Tiro tells in Conspirata and Imperium, its predecessor, is extremely complex. The characters are numerous; keeping track of them is made challenging by the fact that Roman names are easily confused. Nevertheless, I got completely caught up in the story, and in the author’s vivid re-creation of a vanished world. The last thing I expected, as Conspirata was concluding, was to be moved to tears by the events being narrated – and yet, I was.

The third volume in the trilogy is due to appear in 2011. (Note: for some reason, Conspirata was published in the UK as Lustrum.)

On his wonderful site, Steven Saylor provides terrific links to ancient world websites. (Scroll down to “Links to Classical World web sites.” This site also links to my review of the most recent Gordianus the Finder novel, The Triumph of Caesar. Scroll down to the bottom and look for Books to the Ceiling under “Reviews & Misc.”)

I have purchased the Penguin edition of Livy’s The Early History of Rome: . I immediately needed to know more about that eerie, vaguely familiar cover image. It is The Capitoline She-Wolf. It resides in Rome’s Capitoline Museum, where, I  now realize, I first saw it some forty years ago. This video brings the viewer up close to this remarkable sculpture:


So, to recapitulate, I recommend the following:

Pompeii, and Imperium and Conspirata (aka Lustrum), the first two books in a trilogy based on the life of Cicero. (The versatile Robert Harris is also the author of the contemporary thriller The Ghost, the novel upon which the film The Ghost Writer is based.  )

The entire Roma Sub Rosa series by Steven Saylor. I’ve read and loved all twelve books!

The Teaching Company’s History of Ancient Rome, with lectures by Garrett Fagan.

Livy’s History, fascinating but quite challenging. I’m reading it in small  – very small – chunks.

Finally, there’s a novel I read years ago and have never forgotten: The Memoirs of Hadrian by Marguerite Yourcenar. This is a demanding but hugely rewarding work of fiction that lays bare the heart and soul of an Emperor who proves only too human. It is on my list of books to re-read.


Soundtrack for this post: The Pines of Rome by Ottorino Respighi. Here is the final paragraph of program notes written by Richard Freed for a performance of this Heaven-storming work by the National Symphony in 2008:

As the dawn mists rise and settle, the tread of ghostly legions is felt and, in Lionel Salter’s splendid phrase, “fanfares begin to echo down the centuries.” The mists disperse in the blaze of thousands of burnished helmets and breastplates. The already large orchestra swells with the addition of an organ and the augmented brass already noted. Respighi summed up, “To the poet’s fantasy appears a vision of past glories. Trumpets blaze, and the army of the Consul advances brilliantly in the grandeur of a newly rise sun toward the Via Sacra, mounting the Capitoline Hill in final triumph.”

If you ever have a chance to hear this piece performed live – drop everything and go!


Permalink Leave a Comment

Sunday Sampler: from newspapers to Naples – again…

June 15, 2009 at 2:17 am (books, Italian journey, Italy, Magazines and newspapers, Travel) ()

Every Sunday morning, I am greeted with one of my favorite sights: The Washington Post and The New York Times lying on my driveway. Now speaking of driveways, ours is about fifty feet long. Over the (more than twenty) years that we’ve lived here, we’ve noted an increasing propensity on the part of delivery people to leave not only newspapers but telephone books (such quaint anachronistic objects) and various other things at the very end of the driveway. (In our house, this is known as the DDS, or Driveway Delivery System.) At the very least, in the case of the newspapers, this means every morning trudging out to the street in my jammies for the purpose of obtaining the paper. (Don’t worry – I usually throw a robe or a raincoat over my rumpled nightclothes.) I have nothing against a good brisk walk, weather permitting. But when it’s pouring down rain, newspaper retrieval becomes a real adventure. The experience is especially exasperating when the paper has taken on water, usually through the process of wicking. (Is “wicking” the result of some law of physics, and if so, can it be repealed?)

This scenario is rendered even more interesting if it is snowing. At such times, Yours Truly, the early riser in the family, can be seen in a housecoat, wool cap, and clunky winter boots, schlepping out to the end of the driveway, in hope of finding the paper, which may be buried in a snow drift. One feels a bit like an archaeologist, unearthing an artifact artfully concealed by Nature…

Yes, I know, in the scheme of things, these are but minor annoyances. But at the very least, you’d think that in this time of hysteria over the possible disappearance of hard copy newspapers , it would occur to circulation departments that people may be canceling because they’re tired of dealing with this recurrent inconvenience. In fact, some papers may finally be seeing the light. For the past several months, the Sunday Times has been landing about two thirds of the way down the driveway. Alas, the Post is still poised at the lip, so not too much joy there after all.

But wait! The good people at the Post have handed  us book lovers an unexpected treat today:

WP - Summer Reading2No, your eyes do not deceive you: it’s a separate Book World Section! It is twelve pages in length; in addition, there are two pages of book reviews in the Outlook section. So this is a banner day for the Sunday paper after all.

Now I want to spotlight two recent articles from the Times. First, last Sunday’s Week in Review had a feature piece on Italian politics entitled “In Italy, Questions Are From Enemies, and That’s That.”  Above the text is a picture of Silvio Berlusconi looking for all the world like – well, like someone you would not want to cross:

Silvio Berlusconi

Silvio Berlusconi

This article was of interest, naturally, because of my recent sojourn in Italy. But it was also timely because I saw Il Divo at the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring with my erstwhile traveling companions Linda and Jean.

divo Il Divo is a film about the life and times of Giulio Andreotti, who, in the words of the synopsis on the film’s website, “…has been Italy’s most powerful, feared and enigmatic politician.” All three of us felt that because we lacked a background in contemporary Italian politics, and because of the language barrier, a problem even though there were subtitles, we had trouble at times understanding what was happening on screen. Nevertheless, we got the general drift of this powerful and frightening, if somewhat over long film.

In La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, author Beppe Severgnini observes that “Italy is the only workshop in the world that can turn out both Botticellis and Berlusconis.”

Finally, “Deep in the Heart of Historic Naples” appeared in yesterday’s Times. After I read this article, I fired off an impassioned letter to the paper, saying how fascinating I found Naples and how much we missed seeing because we had so little time there. I concluded with by saying, “I’d go back in a heartbeat.” Until the moment I wrote that sentence, I hadn’t admitted to myself that I felt that way.


Here  Jordan Lancaster, in her book In the Shadow of Vesuvius, describes the communal worship of the Greek gods in Neapolis. This would have taken place around the fifth century BC:

“Everyone participated enthusiastically and with exuberant gusto in the celebrations. First and foremost wass undoubtedly the cult of the siren, Parthenope. The cult of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was also strong in Neapolis, as maritime traders and seafarers were particularly devoted to her. Dionysus, the god of wine, and Demeter, the protectress of the harvest, governed the most important local crops in the predominantly agrarian economy. The earth mother and the god of ecstatic liberation embody a seductive, pagan quality that the area has always enjoyed, an alluring combination of beauty and fertility.

Lancaster goes on to quote the Roman historian Livy, who gets even more specific:

“‘To the religious content were added the pleasures of wine and feasting, to attract a greater number. When they were heated with wine and all sense of modesty had  been extinguished by the darkness of night and the mingling of men with women and young with old, then debaucheries of every kind began and all had pleasures at hand to satisfy the lust to which they were most inclined.’

An old, old city, with an amazing history…


Here are some more of my photos of Naples:


A campaign poster, taken from the bus as we were leaving the airport and first entering the city





The Maschio Angioino (Angevin Fortress), more commonly known as the Castel Nuovo. You have to love a place that refers to a castle built in the 13th century as "new." This was taken from a 15th floor window of our hotel.

The Maschio Angioino (Angevin Fortress), more commonly known as the Castel Nuovo. You have to love a place that refers to a castle built in the 13th century as "new." This photo was taken from a 15th floor window of our hotel.

Permalink Leave a Comment

Seeking – and finding? – Wagner’s ghost at Villa Rufolo in Ravello

June 12, 2009 at 2:32 am (Italian journey, Italy, Music, Travel)

I bought this book when it first came out ten years ago. It quickly became emblematic of my desire to return to Italy.

Amalfi Coast Escape Cover

Although published by Fodor’s, this is not your standard travel guide. For one thing, the writing (by Robert I.C. Fisher)  veers from sardonic to rapturous. And the pictures, also taken by Fisher, are spectacular.

Of course, it helps that the subject happens to be the Amalfi Coast, considered by many to be one of the most  beautiful places on Earth. I quoted Gore Vidal to that effect in a recent post. (Vidal lived for many years in Ravello.)

Travel writer Lucia Mauro vividly and poetically evokes the experience of “Seeking Wagner’s Ghost in Ravello.”

And here is Robert I.C. Fisher: “A veil of celestial blue extends as far as you can see when you stand on the upper terrace of the Villa Rufolo. The cerulean hue is not merely a color–it is a miracle, defining ‘blue’ once and for all. ”

Here is that view:

villa1Fisher continues:

“It’s no small mystery why Landolfo Rufolo, described in Boccaccio’s Decameron as one of Italy’s richest men, chose this matchless mountain perch for the site of his 13th century estate. A Scheherazadian extravaganza of Norman batttlements and terraced  gardens, with an Arab-Sicilian cloister, his villa  was designed to welcome Moorish emirs and French kings. But it found its immortality centuries later when Richard Wagner unexpectedly arrived at its gates in February 1880 and stayed the night, banging out the second act of Parsifal on an untuned piano, accompanied only by his giant ego and a fierce thunderstorm. “Klingsor‘s garden is found once again!” the great 19th century composer crowed of the wizard who ordered the seduction of the opera’s saintly hero.

Before I left for Italy, I wrote about my sense of mission with regard to the Villa Rufolo. So, when I found myself actually there, I was already primed for an extraordinary experience. I had seen pictures and done a fair amount of reading, always with my Wagner-loving brother in mind.  And as luck would have it, I had discovered that we had a Wagnerite in our group: Christine, an exuberant, adventurous person and a passionate opera lover, was traveling with her sister Judey.



As we entered the grounds of the Villa, one of the first things we saw was this plaque:


Cameras were held aloft, shutters clicked repeatedly. Christine cried out, “Roberta, this is our moment!” She was right.

But it was only the beginning…







Accompanying all this loveliness was the occasional faint sound of musical instruments. Villa Rufolo plays host to Chamber Music on the Amalfi Coast, a music festival that runs from March to July, and again from September to November. What we were hearing was the musicians practicing. Our guide told us that when the stage is set up, it looks as though it is suspended over the water.


Our precious time at the villa was drawing to a close. I wished we could stay longer. I was expressing this wistful sentiment to one of my fellow tour members when I heard the clarion call of the trumpets from the Prelude to Parsifal. It came crisp and clear, much more immediate than the snatches of music I’d been hearing up until that moment.I broke off, exclaiming. “Oh my God – Parsifal!” I don’t what became of my interlocutor; I just knew I had to find those brass players. Following the already-dying strains of the Prelude, I found a small room with no door, that opened onto a remote part of the garden. The room was empty, save for a television that was the source of the music. The Prelude faded away;  it was followed by pleasant, albeit mundane video of people coming and going along a street in a village. The music became soft, unexceptional pop tunes. There was voice over narration, in Italian.

I turned and left, not sure what had just happened. Christine and I, alas, had gone our separate ways. I regretted that she had not been there to share this moment with me as well.


Later, when we went to visit the shops in Ravello’s piazza, we discovered that the name “Klingsor” had taken on a life of its own in the world of local commerce!




Here is an excerpt from the Good Friday Spell.Wilhelm Furtwangler conducts the   Berlin Philharmonic in this historic performance:

Permalink 4 Comments

A hotel in Sorrento – and a Room with a View

June 5, 2009 at 12:26 pm (Italian journey, Italy, Travel)

For our stay on the Amalfi Coast, our group was put up at the rather extravagantly named Grand Hotel Cesare Augusto in Sorrento. While somewhat less than actually grand, it was certainly more than adequate:




My single room was cozy and inviting. This  was fortunate, as I caught a nasty cold on the second of the six nights we were to be at the hotel, and thus I ended up spending more time in my room than I had planned. Still, I managed not to miss much, and since I love wandering through hotels, I was content.

The “Cesare” boasted two outstanding features: a rooftop swimming pool and a lovely back garden. Next to the pool was an outdoor eating area, where one could obtain light fare. Toward the end of our journey I spent some time there, writing and recuperating and working on my notes. For the most part, I was alone. This kind of time does not figure in when a tour schedule is put together.  Jean and Connie were spending the day in Positano and I would gladly have gone with them had I felt well enough. As it was, though, the time I spent writing, relaxing,  and reflecting at the Cesare’s Roof Snack Bar was a welcome restorative.

I also sat a while at a table on the terrace behind the hotel. There were flowers everywhere, in the most intense colors. This garden must take a great deal of tending. We’d been in Italy slightly over a week and it hadn’t rained once, although it had rained plenty just before our arrival. Thus sun poured over us, in such a kindly way, with the accompaniment of gentle breezes. ( I’m remembering these moments especially wistfully right now: for days it has done nothing but rain here in the Baltimore-Washington area.)

Here is what my room looked like: cesare4. Beyond the windows on the left was a little balcony: balcony. It afforded a pleasant view of the fruit trees under cultivation across the street, and the mountains beyond: view1

view2 By this time, I was starting to feel like a character in a Merchant-Ivory film. Italy being the land of glorious music, I kept hearing in my mind “O Mio Babbino Caro,” from Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi.  This is the aria that famously serves as the accompaniment to the opening credits of  A Room with a View. Here, it is sung by the incomparable Kiri te Kanawa:

Permalink 2 Comments

The most beautiful place in the world

June 4, 2009 at 12:51 am (Italian journey, Italy, Travel) ()

Villa Cimbrone, Ravello: the belvedere, also known as the Terrazzo dell'Infinita (Terrace of Infinity)

Villa Cimbrone, Ravello: the belvedere, also known as the Terrazzo dell'Infinito (Terrace of Infinity)

It is hard to write about the Amalfi Coast; one runs out of superlatives so quickly. Looking at the photograph above, I can hardly believe that I myself took it, that I stood there in that amazing place.

Gore Vidal said it best:

“Twenty five years ago I was asked by an American magazine what was the most beautiful place that I had ever seen in all my travels and I said the view from the belvedere of the Villa Cimbrone on a bright winter’s day when the sky and the sea were each so vividly blue that it was not possible to tell one from the other.

Permalink 1 Comment

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

Permalink 5 Comments

Good climbing, and good cheer, on Vesuvius

May 29, 2009 at 8:05 pm (Italian journey, Italy, Travel)

When we first arrived in Italy, as our bus left the airport and drove into Naples, we could clearly see from the windows  a mountain in the distance. I say in the distance, but actually it seemed startlingly close. We asked our guide Linda if it was Vesuvius. She answered in the affirmative. I think we were all wonder struck, seeing this fabled peak for the first time.



From many angles, many places, Vesuvius can be discerned, brooding over Naples like a mother over her fractious child – an unstable,  dangerous mother, liable to blow her top at any moment…

And yet – a loving and generous mother as well. Three days after our arrival in Italy, we began our ascent of the mountain, initially via bus. Linda explained that the people of the Bay of Naples have a complex relationship with the volcano. Despite its potential for raining down death and destruction, Vesuvius is nevertheless the object of respect, one could almost say veneration, by Neapolitans and their near neighbors.  Volcanic ash, it seems, contains all manner of useful minerals and accounts for the exceptionally fertile soil that characterizes the region. Now, as in ancient times, gardens and vineyards can be found on the slopes of the mountain. Linda further informed us, without a trace of irony, that the name of the wine produced from the grapes grown in this region is Lacryma Christi – the Tears of Christ.


(Add to this the fact that that the road up the mountainside was narrow and tortuous, with increasingly heavy traffic. I was momentarily mesmerized by the crucifix that swung crazily from the bus’s rear view mirror.)

As we reached the foothills of Vesuvius, I was surprised to see numerous houses and apartment complexes. These were lovely neighborhoods, gracefully landscaped. Yet they were in squarely in what is known as the Red Zone, a five-mile radius surrounding the volcano where the danger from an eruption is greatest and most immediate. (I was reminded of California, not for the first or last time.)

Vesuvius National Park was created in 1995. Since that time, it has become a popular excursion, especially on a sunny, mild Sunday. This is exactly when our tour group fetched up there. Armed with walking sticks – mine actually doubled as a monopod for use with my Canon Powershot – we  followed the trail up the mountain, along with many other trekkers. Although we were assailed by swarms of tiny insects, the mood remained festive.

As we neared the trail’s end, we were met by our guide, Pasquale. He filled us in on the history and geology of Vesuvius.

pasqualeThe enormous caldera in the background was actually the result of the last major eruption, which occurred in 1944. Pasquale had us all shout across it in unison; our voices echoed eerily. He then explained to us that guides used to take people down into the caldera until an American serviceman, tossing a rock in order to hear the sound it would make as it hurtled downward, lost his balance and hurtled downward himself, to his death. (Not fifteen minutes after I heard this harrowing tale, a man walked by me, stopped at the railing, and threw a rock over the edge into the caldera!)

In a small gift shop near by, you could buy a postcard and have it stamped as proof that you had climbed the mountain.

Vesuvio Postcard Front & Back

I was filled with pride and exhilaration – I did it!

Due to the friable soil under foot, the walk back down was a bit tricky – I was deeply grateful for my monopod/walking stick. We made it back safely – well, relatively safely. By the time we completed our descent,  the parking lot was crammed full of cars and tour buses. In an effort to stay clear of oncoming traffic, one of our tour members fell, banging up her hands and knees. Once we were settled on the bus, she coped bravely. (Hers was the first of several falls experienced by both tour members and our guide.) We then headed away from that extraordinary experience and toward an even more astounding one: Pompeii.

In between these two momentous encounters, we stopped in  Torre del Greco. Famous in its day for the production of cameo jewelry, this town whose name literally means “Tower of the Greek” houses but a few establishments that still practice this ancient craft. Linda told us that until recently, cameos were handed down from mothers to daughters to granddaughters, and so on. Like so many traditions of old, this one is, alas, dying out.

One of the premier jewelers still making cameos in Torre del Greco is Giovanni Apa. We stopped at this fine establishment, where we were shown the art of making cameos, and – naturally! – given the opportunity to shop. The cameo I purchased bears a close resemblance to this one:

cameoInstantly, it became a treasured keepsake. I look at it, touch it, and recall the magic of this journey.

Permalink 2 Comments

Arrivederci, Napoli…parting thoughts

May 24, 2009 at 2:50 pm (Art, Food, Italian journey, Italy, Travel)

I would have liked another day in Naples – actually another week would have been most welcome. For one thing, I had wanted very much to see the  Caravaggio paintings housed in various venues in the city:

Th Flagellation, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

Th Flagellation, Museo Nazionale di Capodimonte

The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, Banca Commerciale Italiana

The Martyrdom of St. Ursula, Banca Commerciale Italiana

The Seven Acts of Mercy, Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia

The Seven Acts of Mercy, Church of Pio Monte della Misericordia

Caravaggio, whose turbulent life would make a great movie, is one of many great artists and writers who were either born in Naples or lived some part of their lives there. Among these are Giovanni Boccaccio, author of Tales of the Decameron; the great sculptor Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the notorious and fascinating Emma Hamilton, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, and the composers Alessandro Scarlatti and Carlo Gesualdo, to name just a few.

Like Caravaggio, Carlo Gesualdo led an eventful life marked by violence: upon finding his wife in flagrante with her lover, without hesitation he killed them both. He then fled to his castle in the mountains, where he proceeded to kill his only son because he suspected him of having been sired by his wife’s illicit amour. Talk about material for a movie!  (This bloody tale is recounted by Jordan Lancaster in her history of Naples entitled In the Shadow of Vesuvius. The author further informs us that in a trial that lasted only a single day, Gesualdo was acquitted, ‘given the well-known just cause which guided him.’  )

And yet, and yet…such beautiful music!

And speaking of music, I neglected to mention when writing about our visit to the Cappella Sansevero that while we were there, sacred music was playing softly in the background. I heard one of my favorite selections in the early music reperoire:  Miserere Mei, Deus by Gregorio Allegri:

(Click here to read the history of this work – a history that involves the young Mozart.)

And speaking about music once more, I had also hoped at least to visit the Teatro di San Carlo, if not actually attend a performance there.



Alas, we got only a fleeting glimpse of this historic (1737) performance venue as our bus sped through the city.


And now, from the sublime to the merely delicious!

Among its other virtues, Naples is the birthplace of pizza – specifically, Pizza Margherita. It seems that when Queen Margherita of Savoy came to the city in 1889, Raffaele Esposito, the reigning pizzaiolo of the day, sought to create a dish in honor of her visit. His deceptively simple concoction consisted of  the basic ingredients, bread and tomato sauce, topped with the famous local mozzarella di bufala and finished off with sprigs of fresh basil. Ecco, there you have it: red, white, and green, the colors of the Italian flag!


Permalink 2 Comments

National Museum of Archaeology, Naples

May 23, 2009 at 1:45 am (Art, books, Italian journey, Italy, Travel)



Housed in an elegant edifice dating from the early 17th century, the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli is a vast treasure house of sculptures, frescoes, mosaics, and other artifacts from ancient times. Many are from Pompeii and Herculaneum; they were removed to the museum for purposes of safekeeping and preservation.

Choirmaster and actors, from Pompeii

Choirmaster and actors, from Pompeii

Fish mosaic

Fish mosaic

the Farnese Bull,from the second century BC

the Farnese Bull,from the second century BC

Click here for the harrowing tale depicted in this remarkable sculpture, thought to be the largest ever recovered from antiquity.

"Pseudo-Seneca," now thought to be a bust of Hesiod

"Pseudo-Seneca," now thought to be a bust of the Greek poet Hesiod

Seated Hermes

Seated Hermes

Farnese Hercules

Farnese Hercules


Okay, I know you want to see them…here are several examples of the art that resides in the famous (infamous?) “Gabinetto Segreto:


Erotic pair


Satyr and Nymph

Priapus fresco

Priapus fresco

There’s plenty more in that secret room, which used to be off limits to all but those with special permission to enter and view. I’m not about to tackle the subject of the sexual attitudes that characterized ancient Roman provinces, but I can recommend the chapter entitled “The Pleasures of the Body” from Mary Beard’s fascinating book:  beard


We spent the morning in that place of wonders and it wasn’t nearly long enough. This fact was especially brought home to me as I paged through the catalog. I thought we had seen quite a bit, but actually we saw just a small fraction of the museum’s vast holdings.

Here is the catalog:NAM of Naples The cover image is Flora, from Castellammare di Stabia, Villa of Varanus or Ariadne; it is described thus:

“The female figure seen tripping barefoot away from us, her veil and the hem of her dress fluttering in the breeze, has the heartaching allure of a fleeting apparition in a dream. As she moves she turns aside to pick with gesture full of elegance white flowers from a bush which she will then lay in her basket. We do not know whether she is human or divine, a nymph, Flora, or Proserpine. But then the painter himself, who took his inspiration from 4th century models and produced this masterpiece of grace and fantasy as a vignette on a III style wall, made no effort to characterise with extraneous attributes the identity of this young maiden, whom it seems only natural to view as the embodiment of Spring itself.

Permalink 2 Comments

« Previous page · Next page »