ArchiTalk: Pompeii, Italy — my kind of town
By Steve McKee
ALL FOUR MCKEES WANTED TO SEE THE LEGENDARY RUINS OF POMPEII, the Roman city preserved just as it was on a random summer afternoon in 79 A.D. when nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted and covered it in 20 feet of ash. In this way a day-in-the-life time capsule of a typical Roman city was left for the world to discover. Despite a few tunnels created by looters, the place was left mostly intact until a small archaeological exploration in 1599 discovered it, followed by a much larger expedition in 1748.
I was reading these facts aloud to Melody as I perused them on my smart-phone in the lobby of our hotel. It was the night before our visit to the famous site and I wanted to bone up on things.
The next morning on the half-hour drive to Pompeii, I filled in the kids on the tragic backstory. The volcano erupted with hot ash, not hot lava, I explained. It was more like a Mount Saint Helens, not like a Hawaiian volcano.
For the first couple hours the eruption was experienced as a growing cascade of ash and pumice falling from a darkening sky. Then came the big blast in the form of a dense cloud of searing hot gasses and ash that rushed down the side of Mount Vesuvius and dropped everyone wherever they stood or crouched. Modern scientists call this a pyroclastic flow. It instantly killed an estimated 15,000 people.
Scientists know about the timing and other details because history has a good eyewitness account of that day from Pliny the Younger, who watched his uncle Pliny the Elder sail back into the danger zone to help evacuate people, only to die for his efforts. Young Pliny, 18 at the time, wrote about it twice in letters to relatives. He went on to become a noted poet. Today volcanologists refer to the mushroom clouds of the type that exploded out of Vesuvius as “Plinian.”
Those first hours of dreadful ash and rock raining down presented the classic conundrum: “Shelter in place” or “flee the scene”? What might you have done?
Of course, hindsight makes that an easy answer. But to me it seems pretty reasonable to want to seek shelter under the tile roof of one’s own home as hot bits of rock and ash rain down. Yet it was those residents who quickly hurried away who lived to see another day. Those who waited in the city, or spent time packing up valuables, experienced a quick but horrific death by intense heat.
Pompeii had its share of misfortune. A bad earthquake 17 years before had damaged the city and required much repair work, but was not seen as a sign that this well-known volcano was becoming active again. They didn’t have the science to make that connection. Instead these were people who had staged “Vulcanalia,” a festival to the Roman god of fire, exactly one day before the volcano erupted and killed so many of them. Two thousand years of distance provides us with a detachment and sense of fatalism about this tragic day, but it had to be absolutely terrifying and horrible.
We arrived and I found us a shady spot in the gravel parking lot. We walked past a souvenir stand, rented self-guided tour handsets and waited in a short line for our tickets. Once inside, we used maps to find our way around to the highlights.
First was the local Forum, a smaller version of the one in Rome, with much open space and surviving colonnades and various walls. In the distance beyond was Mount Vesuvius, so tranquil and innocent-seeming. All the ash was long gone.
Most of the city we saw was comprised of long narrow streets with one-story brick and stone walls on both sides. There were entire city blocks of this, with an occasional turn in the road. The streets were paved with rounded rocks in that sturdy Roman manner, with a raised narrow sidewalk on one or both sides. While most walls stood, most roofs were gone. Lots of blue sky instead. Second stories, described by the droning voice in our tour handsets, were no more.
We toured one of several public bathhouses disbursed around the neighborhoods. Its arched ceiling was intact with carvings and tiled murals on the walls. There were a series of dipping pools that had been heated from below with varying degrees of warmth. Living around the corner from such a bathhouse seemed like a fairly liveable arrangement. Something I could abide.
At the bakery, archaeologists had found eight loaves of sliced bread left on the ledge next to the kiln. I guess that ash really did work as a preservative.
There was an amphitheater and an arena in different corners of the city, both quite intact and within an easy walk of the houses. Yes, a satisfying life was possible in a city such as this.
Before they figured it out, the 18th-century archaeologists were perplexed about voids they found in the ash with the bones of a human skeleton inside. Then someone realized these voids were created over time as the bodies rotted away and the bones remained. By injecting plaster into these voids, these latter-day explorers created a sort of sculpture that commemorated the death pose of the victim — in one famous case, a mother crumpled next to her child — with a skeleton enclosed in the plaster, sometimes visible at the edges. Several of these plaster mummies could be viewed beyond a chained-off area. Their lives unfairly cut short, the fate of these victims now includes being photographed again and again all day long by tourists, a grim sideshow.
We also got to explore a typical dwelling, and that’s when I finally came to understand this special place that is Pompeii. Most of the buildings and houses turned inward onto private courtyards (or peristyles, if you want to use the official word for these four-sided colonnades) with entrance openings onto the street that often showed off a painted mural or a tile mosaic image in the floor. These people had the same humanity in them as you or I.
I had a moment alone in one of these courtyards when I let myself slow down and watch the sun stream down a row of columns just as it did, and does, every day, saw the cool shade in an open room beyond — a sleeping room, I imagined — and realized that this moment I was experiencing, this sun and shade and cool repose, was exactly how it had been for the souls who occupied this home all those years ago. The relaxed living available in the recesses of this house seemed so tangible. I admired my Pompeian counterparts for their choice to live like this and was happy that their home life had achieved a sort of immortality here at this famous site. I could live this way, and happily so.
And that’s when Pompeii became not about the dying, but about the living. I decided that this city was a memorial to human life. With that, I was off to join my family around the corner at the next highlight, a place called the Poet’s House.
Steve McKee is a Benicia architect specializing in residential design and a member of the Benicia Historic Preservation Review Commission. He can be reached on the Web at www.smckee.com or at 707-746-6788.