The Italian press has recently raged about the deteriorating state of the great villas at Pompeii. Over at Last Word on Nothing, I take a look at allegations that organized crime, in the form of the Camorra, has tried to elbow in on government contracts at Pompeii.
I once spent an entire a year flying to remote parts of the world to see mummies. I was researching and writing a book that became The Mummy Congress, and during this time I got to know the preserved dead exceptionally well. I watched them being unwrapped from their linens in Egypt, poked and prodded with fiber optics in Italy and haggled over in China. And I feel obliged to state something clearly. I have never seen a mummy that struck me as ghoulish or macabre or indeed anything other than what it was generally was–a dead human being who had been mourned, prepared, arranged and preserved.
I can’t say the same, however, of the plaster casts that archaeologists have made of Pompeii’s victims, a thought that occurred to me this morning as I read on the BBC website of a new exhibit of these objects at Antiquarium de Boscoreale, a short drive away from Pompeii.
Archaeologists produce these casts whenever they find skeletal remains lying in cavities in the volcanic rock that still blankets much of Pompeii. They pour plaster into the hollow and pry it loose when it hardens. And what often emerges is an object not quite human, and not quite artifact, something that captures in eerie detail the final moments of one of Pompeii’s inhabitants during the deadly eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Once seen, such casts are not easily forgotten.
I saw them for the first time a few years ago, when Cambridge University archaeologist Andrew Wallace-Hadrill took me to see the one of the grandest and most opulent homes in Pompeii, the House of Fabius Rufus. As I recall (and please correct me, someone, if I am wrong), this immense villa had never been open to the public, and Wallace-Hadrill and I spent nearly an hour admiring its exquisite frescos and its private bath.
At one point in this behind-the-scenes tour, I was climbing down a shadowy stairwell and I stumbled on something obstructing one of the steps. I stopped and peered down to see what I had nearly fallen on. It was a plaster cast of a human victim sprawled across the stair, a slave perhaps who had no chance to flee and who had literally perished on the spot. At that moment, I felt a deep, penetrating sense of the ancient tragedy, and although two thousand years had passed since the toxic volcanic gases had swept through the city, I could see all too clearly a life being snuffed out right in front of me.
As Wallace-Hadrill and I continued roaming the house, we came across several more of these casts lying on the floor, in various attitudes of death. The archaeologist, an expert on the architecture of Pompeii, paid no attention to them, as if he scarcely saw them any more. But a terrible chill came over me each time I found another huddled or splayed form, another a human life cut short.
All this came to mind today when I read of a new exhibit. The show marks the first time that museum goers will see such a large collection of the casts in one spot.
In honor of the patron saint of romances, St. Valentine, whose day rapidly approaches, I thought I’d bring you something very different today–the expressions of love carved upon the walls of Pompeii some 2000 years ago. This proved to be a little trickier than you might expect at first blush, for many of the Pompeiian inscriptions are wonderfully raunchy. The Romans really loved sex and weren’t at all bashful about publicizing their talents in the sack. So I had to be a little selective.
First a word about where I found these wonderful translations. The Italian archaeologist and epigrapher Antonio Varone, who works in an office building tucked away on the grounds of Pompeii, has written a superb book on the inscriptions: Erotica Pompeiana: Love Inscriptions on the Walls of Pompeii. While nearly everyone who visits the ancient resort town notices all kinds of graffiti scratched on the stone of villas and public buildings, very few possess sufficient knowledge of the Latin language or Roman culture to decipher the inscriptions. Thank you Antonio Varone for opening our eyes.
Ok, bring on the inscriptions. First the lovesick:
“Vibius Restitutus slept here alone, longing for his Urbana.”
“Girl, you look lovely to Ceius and many others.”
Next, the tender:
“So may you forever flourish, Sabina; may you acquire beauty and stay a girl for a long time.”
Who is it that spends the night with you in happy sleep? Would that it were me. I would be many times happier.
“Warmest regards from Puddle to her Fishlet.”
“Virgula to her Tertius: you are loathsome.”
“Erotarin, you jealous old fool.”
“No one’s a real man unless he’s loved a woman while still a boy.”
“Restitutus has often seduced many girls.”
The feminist version:
“Euplia was here with thousands of good-looking men.”
“I would not sell my husband…for any price…”
The proud new parents:
“Cornelius Sabinus has been born.”
What I love most about these inscriptions is their immediacy. I feel as if I know these people, as if for a moment or two, I can share their thoughts across the great dark chasm of time.
Over the past few months, I have developed very mixed feelings about the internet giant Google. I hate to see how Google is draining the life out of the newspaper industry, slurping up all the advertising dollars that once paid for investigative journalism, foreign bureaus, and very fat papers. All that has largely fallen by the way for many newspapers, who are now firmly focussed on survival.
But having said that, I can see that someone very high up the food chain at Google is passionate about archaeology. On November 25th, I wrote about the 3-D laser scanning project that Google is funding at the Iraq National Museum. The intent is to bring the treasures of Mesopotamia and other ancient civilizations from the region to scholars around the world. It’s a wonderful plan.
Now Google has done something else that I really like. It has just posted a Street View of Pompeii, and it’s very, very cool. You are free to navigate the narrow stony streets of the ancient city at your desk, stopping to take a gawk at the market stalls and a spin around the forum. And all on a beautiful, blue-skied day in southern Italy.