Wednesday, April 30, 2008
Pompeii lives in the dreams of countless individuals throughout the world. The fascination of our species with catastrophes is a topic that could fill volumes, but Pompeii quickens the imagination for many reasons. For four centuries, tourists have visited Pompeii and marvelled at the power of Vesuvius. In fictional accounts such as Bulwer-Lytton's 'Last Days of Pompeii' and the contemporary 'Pompeii - A Novel' by Robert Harris, writers have attempted to capture both the society of ancient Pompeii and the last terrifying moments of its inhabitants. A host of non-fictional studies have been published on the subject and there are a multitude of internet sites devoted to the doomed city.
It is not one of the great ancient 'sacred sites' where people from different eras and cultures found an echo of the Divine in the very rocks, stones, soil and trees, but it does represent the overwhelming power of Nature as a wielder of Death as well as Rebirth.
Vesuvius rather than Pompeii is the true sacred site, the cauldron of the Goddess. The ruins of Pompeii are a warning to humanity never to ignore or underestimate the eternal continuing potency of Nature.
Yet, Pompeii is a mausoleum of sorts and its streets, avenues, houses, temples and forum are rather like the models of cities placed in the tombs of ancient Egypt or in tombs in other parts of the ancient world, but on a grander scale. The dead of Pompeii did not expect their city to become a mausoleum but if their concept of the afterlife contained any element of former earthly life, then the entire city could serve to remind them of their daily routines, their position in society and anything else required to make the transition from this world to the next.
Unfortunately, the museum on site has been closed temporarily and the exhibits are stacked like items in a warehouse. Even so, one is able to catch glimpses of fine objects behind the iron gates... and the famous plaster corpses can be seen both there and in other locations of the city.
The expressions of the dying were captured fully in plaster and one feels as though one commits an almost obscene act by gazing upon the agony of another human being, even one whose ordeal occurred thousands of years ago. To take a photograph of such is even more of an obscenity and yet, how many of us can resist the impulse? It is the reality of it that is so compelling. It may not be a skeleton, the actual bones and flesh of any human, but the plaster casts are more eloquent than any corpse could be. I have gazed upon a multitude of 'relics' in churches and cathedrals throughout Europe as well as the mummified remains of bodies found in bogs and so on... but nothing equals the 'reality' of death seen in the plaster casts of the dying in Pompeii. Perhaps it is precisely because the evidence is that of the act of dying... capturing a moment between life and death.
It is that moment of final transformation that is so mesmerising and horrific. It is not the soul who has passed through the portal to death and ultimately rebirth perhaps but the soul who is caught in the agony of dying. Like a struggling insect caught in a spider's web, the plaster casts of Pompeii depict the struggle against death rather than the peace of the tomb.
Tourists file past glass coffins containing plaster casts in various locations, rather like mourners paying their respect at a funeral viewing, but without the same sense of reverence or emotional connection. Their curiosity is avid for the most part, and they want MORE. As you can see from the photographs I have included, the agony on the faces of these unfortunate individuals is undeniable, raw and vivid despite the passage of centuries. They may not be flesh and bone but they are more imbued with the spirit and emotion of the individual than most actual remains.
As far as the city itself is concerned, Pompeii as previously stated was NOT a particularly sacred destination for the Romans. It was a rather ordinary prosperous mercantile town before the eruption of Vesuvius. Part of its fascination for tourists is precisely that I imagine: here is the Roman equivalent of our own ordinary towns and cities. To walk through the streets of Pompeii is to walk through the Roman equivalent of Livorno in Italia, Nice in France, Southampton in England or Philadelphia in the States. There are some fine public buildings and many elegant homes, but Pompeii is not distinguished by any powerful ancient spiritual traditions, apart from its proximity to Vesuvius.
In fact, it is the fast food stalls, bakeries and houses of prostitution or Lupinari that fascinate many ordinary visitors to Pompeii. Enormous laundries, marketplaces and bathhouses are more of interest to many than the ruins of the ancient temples. I suspect it is because the visitor can relate emotionally to these glimpses of ordinary mundane life in a city that was destroyed almost 2000 years ago.
I cannot attempt to compete with existing information on Pompeii but will include links to some sites.
Interactive Guide to Pompeii
From a BBC documentary entitled 'Pompeii, the Last Day':
An enterprising tourist created a video of scenes from Pompeii as it exists now:
The World of Caius, Pompeii for Children
The volcano of Vesuvius last erupted in 1944. Here is actual footage from the disaster.