Are modern human frauds? We certainly have an desire to impress. Social media has perpetuated our yearning for acceptance and intellectualism. When did the cosmetic of how something appears become more important than the deeper meaning of how something is? Salvador Dalí, the Spanish surrealist artist, once commented “We are all hungry and thirsty for concrete images”. The technological revolution of the last fifty years has entrenched our dependency on empirical experiences, and it’s become pervasive throughout society. We have become cultural dilettantes.
An exemplar of this is how we think about, and engage, with historical landmarks. As a pure aesthetic experience, it can be rather prosaic and reductive, and thus underwhelming. But when we visit a culturally preserved site, we have an opportunity for something insightful. We have an opportunity to travel through time. In short, we have to think abstractly, which is where the true awe lies in our imagination. This, I found, was my experience, of Pompeii.
In the darkness you could hear the crying of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men. Some prayed for help. Others wished for death. But still more imagined that there were no Gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness.
― Pliny the Younger, The Letters of Pliny, the Younger: With Observations on Each Letter
A bit of context goes a long way……
To the fervent historian, there is nothing more abhorrent than the swift, decisive, dismissiveness of the laymen. So here I go: as a pure aesthetic experience, this Grand Master of UNESCO World Heritage Sites, has the potential to underwhelm. This is not to suggest that, at its most foundational, it has nothing to offer. But once you move beyond all of the hype and paraphernalia, as you traverse the distractions of having to avoid broken ankles on the cobbled streets and the constant application of suntan lotion to one’s head, well, they are just partial monolithic ruins. So let us unshackle ourselves from the burden of a society-induced masquerade. Let us disabuse ourselves of the notion that we must be immediately awe-struck, and see what true classical scholars and historians see. For if one is truly honest with oneself, one can set the appropriate expectations. This will be a more visceral experience rather than an intellectual one. And that is just fine.
Type ‘Pompeii’ into Google, and the plethora of websites all relay facts and context of that fateful day in AD 79, which ultimately lead to its place in history (along with Herculaneum). The tsunami of available information is just too much to consume, and that in itself is the challenge. For the average person, becoming a Pompeii scholar is not the end goal of deciding whether to visit, let alone if one is actually afforded the opportunity to place their twentieth century sandal on those cobbled streets. So now that we have accepted that we need to go deeper than the pure cosmetic, but not so deep that it becomes unpalatable, the job is down to the individual to shape their own bespoke experience. Success will be defined with a simple question: “what do I want to get out of this visit?”. It’s a straightforward question, and avoids vacillation of what we should be looking for. One could decide to focus on the culture (food, wine, sex), everyday life (living standards, bathing), the forms (art and architecture), topography, or the poignant apex of Pompeii’s history in relation to Mount Vesuvius’ eruption (the physical remnants). In my experience, deciding what your interest is, and searching out tangible features that are emblematic of that interest, will yield a far more insightful and enjoyable experience. Otherwise, you are in for a long day.
As any credible chef knows, the quality of the end product is largely a reflection of the preparation. So I undertook immersion therapy and purchased ‘Pompeii: Life of a Roman Town’; the eminent Historian Mary Beard’s thoroughly detailed Pompeii synopsis. For those of us that have spent any literary time in the company of a Historian, it can be hard going. Mary is a obviously talented scholar, who challenges a traditionally male-dominated sector, and brings Pompeii to life with lots of facts and pithy observations. But at 315 pages, 2 of which are attributed to ‘Making a Visit’, it’s still like walking through a muddy swamp – lots of effort and a limited sense of direction (there are an additional 19 pages devoted to ‘further reading’ – god bless you Mary and your optimism!). Nevertheless, her observations did enable me to formulate my own quest: the abstract visualisation of an ordinary day for Pompeii folk.
What to expect……
My time at Pompeii was stereo-typical: a scorching day, a sunny blue sky, a clear view of the majestic Vesuvius, and a swarm of touristic humans across the entire quarter square mile site. History is ubiquitous at Pompeii, which seems to yield new secrets in perpetuity. I walked around and slowly absorbed the visual orgy of historical relics. What is hard at first, you have to begin separating these split moments in time, between the present of the bustling crowds, and the homogeneous architecture and environment. You need to engage all of your senses to make this come alive. You have to want to experience more than pure optics will provide. To seek out the truth. When you strip away the present, your eyes are left with ruins, pebbled streets, scorched corpses, and if you go in the summer, a blazing sun. This is Pompeii. Once I really started to focus, time began to dissolve the Pompeii story into form, energy, and emotion.
No text book can prepare you for the serendipitous moment when you began to grasp the reality of walking around a place that hosted a group of fellow humans about as far back as we can go. Museums, with their Dinosaur bones and preserved Neanderthal human corpses, whilst amazing, are completely independent from their contextual environment. Pompeii is a rare event, in that it brings you both. Everything is static; the buildings are broken and the remains are silent. There is a wave of passivity. This lack of energy promotes an eerie sense of calmness, imbued with tragic feelings. I slowly began to look for signs of life. This is the complexity of Pompeii: the signs are present, but the makers have vanished.
There are many well-known landmarks within Pompeii like the Home of the Tragic Poet (my favourite), the Basilica, and The Temple of Jupiter, and these are all worthy of your time. But it’s in the small details that you will see the traces of everyday life. The deep scratch marks on the kerbs where horse-drawn carts would scrape against the side of the road; you can imagine the bustling high street with carts navigating each other. Recently there have been other discoveries like a roadside food stall. Decorated with painted images of a nymph, a rooster, ducks, and a dog on a leash, the eatery was found along with what are likely the remains of snails, sheep, fish, and other foods on offer to passers-by. A gastronomic pit-stop for workers and market dwellers alike. Grand Roman spas and pavilions may be majestic in their architecture, but as you observe the worn steps and the water system, you have a fleeting sense that this, compared to our contemporary spectrum of options, was pure luxury.
It would be remiss of me to omit the most humbling aspect of Pompeii: the remains of the fallen. It was a haunting experience. These individuals met their end in a savage way we could not, or dare not, imagine. On that fateful day, it is difficult to comprehend what must have transpired. And this is the story of Pompeii. Just like other historical tragedies, like the sinking of the Titanic, the story of Pompeii is ultimately a human story. Over 10,000 people lost their lives in the most horrific of circumstances. To see their scorched corpses, perfectly preserved in their last poses, as the blast of intense heat incinerated them from the inside out, one cannot help feel an immense wave of melancholy.
The essentials: prices and standards……
We visited during the month of August. The common theme from all conversations I had prior to visiting, wasn’t the magnificence of it all, but instead were focused around three words: “hat”, “water”, and “sun-cream”. The pristine white marble reflects the sun like a magnifying glass, and in the summer, the heat is brutal and unrelenting. The symmetrical layout of Pompeii can feel a bit like a maze, and it’s easy to get disoriented, which calls for a ample stock of water just in case it takes longer to find your exit (as my own 1 hour detour testifies to!).
Pompeii receives around 3.5m visitors a year and is slowly deteriorating as a result (statistical source here); so be respectful and play your part in its preservation. As I walked around I saw empty water bottles thrown on the ground – I have no idea how ignorant these individuals are to think this is acceptable, but I suspect their meagre pea-sized intellect is comparable to the very pebbles they walk on.
Prices are an incredibly palatable 15 Euros per person (no idea post-Brexit); there are a variety of ticket types with add on’s available.
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