Italy's other underworld

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 26 February, 2006, 12:00am

Many tourists catch a train to the Roman ruins of Pompeii, wander amid them and return to Naples a few hours later. They don't know what they are missing: the many less renowned treasures of the Pompeii area. Villa Poppea,

a short bus ride from Pompeii, has its decorations intact, including intriguing illusionary paintings. Herculaneum, 10km from Pompeii, is distinctive and the museum at Boscoreale reveals the daily routine of Pompeii's estimated 20,000 inhabitants before it was sealed by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, AD79.

The broken cone of Vesuvius dominates the narrow plain between the mountain and the Bay of Naples: 600,000 people live on its fertile slopes. It is not dead but dormant, its last eruption having occurred in 1944.

The richest Romans had seaside villas beyond the walled resort town of Pompeii. One such residence, Villa Poppea, in the modern seaport of Torre Annunziata, has been opened up in recent decades. It is in such good condition, visitors can easily imagine a family and household staff moving through the rooms in their togas, bathing in its larger-than-Olympic-standard swimming pool and taking the cool evening air in its garden. And what a family: evidence suggests this was the villa of Poppea, the second wife of Emperor Nero, who died in AD65 after being kicked in the stomach while pregnant by her husband. Although she was notoriously immoral, the sumptuous frescos are not vulgar, like some in Pompeii.

A predominately brown-brick town 25km south of Naples and 4km from the sea, Pompeii covers 160 hectares, with fascinating sites at all points of the compass: the Villa dei Misteri (Villa of the Mysteries), for example, which has enormous frescos of religious initiation rites, and the amphitheatre, which could seat 12,000 spectators.

After visiting Pompeii, which now draws 2.5 million visitors annually, German novelist Johann Goethe observed that 'there have been many disasters in this world, but few which have given so much delight to posterity'. But without imagination and information from a good guide book, Pompeii remains dead.

Victims of the eruption, frozen in mid-flight, hands over their heads or holding their nostrils against insidious gases, constitute the most striking remains. When the volcanic version of a tsunami, which had a force much greater than the Hiroshima atomic bomb, hit Pompeii's pleasure-loving inhabitants, some were poisoned, while others were suffocated by a fall-out of burning ash, pumice and other small rocks. Decomposition of their corpses, and those of animals such as a chained dog, created cavities in the ash. Archaeologists injected liquid plaster into the cavities, which recreated the bodies of the victims. An estimated 3,000 people died in the disaster.

The life that was choked to death that midsummer is revealed by advertisements such as, 'I am Felix the Jew who sells the best wine in Pompeii'; manifestos for elections held 1,927 years ago; a 'beware of the dog' sign that has been reproduced worldwide; drinks counters; terracotta wine amphorae; a bakery where householders could bake their bread and save on firewood at home; dyers and cleaners who collected urine to use its acid; a large covered market; chariot tracks in the paved, grid-patterned streets. Almost intact are bath houses that had hot, tepid and cool pools, and ducts for blasting hot air into saunas. There are the remains of a large gymnasium and the gladiators' quarter. The town hall, law courts, temples and altars constitute the administrative centre, the forum. Phallic symbols were used as publicity outside brothels and also simply to ward off bad luck.

Near the old city walls are 'suburban baths', whose dressing room features pornographic frescos, although most of the notorious erotic paintings and sculptures have been transferred to the Archaeological Museum in Naples. Pompeii has yielded more wall paintings and mosaics than any other site in the ancient world.

There is a fine new museum at Boscoreale, only 5km from the excavations, but many visitors are unaware of its excellent displays on the subjects of food, arts and crafts, religion, work habits and lifestyle as they were on the eve of the eruption. Among its attractions are blackened bread loaves baked for that fatal day, fossilised wheat, grapes, figs, dates, pomegranate seeds and olives. There are shellfish leftovers, traces of a broad-bean soup and the bronze pot it was found in.

Ancient Pompeii was rediscovered at the end of the 16th century during the building of a canal. But it was only in 1748 that King Carlo of Naples ordered excavations. By 1960, 60 per cent of Pompeii had been uncovered. Since then, excavations have gone deeper, to the remains of the pre-Roman, Samnite settlement.

One stop before Pompeii, on the Circumvesuviana rail line from Naples to Sorrento, is Herculaneum. Unlike Pompeii, it was not covered by seven metres of ash and small volcanic stones. Instead, it was engulfed by 16 metres of a molten magma of lava and mud. The strata of lava resulted in better preservation of wooden structures, vegetable matter and fabrics than in Pompeii. The lava protected artefacts against not only atmospheric agents but also illegal digging.

A rowing boat remains covered with a beige crust, as if flying dough splashed over it and stuck. There is a club room for freed slaves who were fans of the emperor, Augustus, decorated with frescos of Hercules, the city's mythical founder. In the 1980s, excavations located the skeletons of 270 victims of the eruption in Herculaneum boatsheds. In a villa outside the archaeological park, 1,803 papyri with philosophical writings were found, and excavations at the Villa of the Papyri continue. Who knows what explosive finds await.

Getting there: Cathay Pacific ( flies from Hong Kong to Rome, from where there are rail connections to Pompeii. Modern Pompeii, a town of 17,000 inhabitants, flanks the ruins and offers a range of hotels. The Euro13 ($120) Campania card, valid for three days, allows entry to the area's museums and sites and covers surface transport. See




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