14. November 2004 · Comments Off on Ghost City · Categories: General

I bought a copy of Robert Harris’ “Pompeii” last week… well, it’s better than “The Last Days of Pompeii”, which….to put it tactfully, is a pretty easy accomplishment. Actually, it’s pretty fascinating, on a technical level, with the accounts of the aqueducts and waterworks and all, the engineering which was the rock-ribbed foundation of the Roman Empire, although the characters are pretty… stock B movie. Cecil B. DeMille would be entirely at home with this concept and materiel.

My daughter and I passed through the Campania, early in September 1985, on our way in the VEV from Athens to Zaragoza. We were on the car-ferry from Patras to Brindisi, and I drove from there, across the boot of Italy, and my experience of driving in Greece emboldened me to attempt the drive from Salerno, along the Amalfi Coast to Positano, along a road which was a bare lane and a half wide, slung along about half-way down a 3,000ft cliff with a lot of hairpin turns. Enormous tour busses invariably came hurtling at me, around every blind turn, it seemed, and I was forced to hug the sheer stone wall on the right-hand verge so intimately, that I was astounded to emerge at Positano with any paint at all on the passenger-side fender. On the map, it looked like the shorter way, but it took me nearly three days at the Casa Albertina in Positano to recover from the experience, and continue the journey along the coast towards Amalfi, and the fabled ruin of Pompeii, the 1st Century provincial city preserved like an insect in amber by the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius. Everyone… simply everyone has had Pompeii on their touristic to-do list since the early 19th century.

My daughter and I walked up the ramp into the Porte Marina, once the main city gate, nearest the harbor and docks, under a blue September sky. It was cool in the stone tunnel, out of the morning sunshine, and the cobbled ramp sloped steeply upwards. When I had come here as a teenager in 1970, there had been a little museum in what had either been a gatehouse, or a structure built against the inside of the wall, and which opened into the tunnel. The cramped little rooms had featured some of the relics found over the years— among them a clutch of blackened eggshells in a pottery bowl, and two of the Henry Moore-ish plaster castings made wherever a hollow in the solidified materiel which had inundated the city 2,000 years ago had been found by excavators. The city was populated by those hollows, where people’s bodies had been, where they had fallen limp or in rictus, with a fold of cloth over the face, alone or with others, felled in a blast of super-hot air and a storm of ash and pumice. The flesh and fabric disintegrated, the ash solidified into something very nearly stone, until liquid plaster filled the space, and there was another pale ghost for the necropolis of Pompeii.
We walked out into the sunshine, into the ghost city, the walls around us up to first floor level, sometimes up to the second floor, a straight narrow avenue with lumpy sidewalks on either side. Iron wheels had carved narrow grooves into stone paving blocks, especially deep in the spaces between the stepping stones.

The curious thing about Pompeii is— although it is a tourist attraction, with fleets of tour busses drawn up in close-packed shoals every day of the week— that is it a huge place, street after street of tall, tightly packed walls, varied by open spaces, by courtyards, gardens and public spaces. It absorbs the presence of all these living people, smothers the noise and presence of them into a queer solitude and quiet. Walking along these once-peopled streets, venturing into the various houses and complexes, one felt very distant from al these other people, their voices and footsteps distant and muffled. In some places, the shades of the plaster ghosts felt somewhat closer than the living— in that private house where a metal faun danced joyously in the middle of a dry and dusty tiled pool, where now-crumbled walls afforded a view of the symmetrical slope of the volcano, at the nameless street-corner where a little café had a heated counter with inset wells for containers of food to be kept piping hot, to the walls of the villa outside the Porto Herculaneum with one of the rooms painted in black with elegant cameo-figures and motifs painted in pastels and gold… oh, yes, all these things speak to us, and we recognize them with because it is all so very familiar…

First, because this was a city, a city and a civilization with standards and facilities not very far removed from our own: running water, vulgar mass entertainment, a government administration, a common language, graffiti on the walls, bars and brothels and courtrooms, tenements and suburbs, all the rough messy business of living. It would have all been very familiar to us, although the smells of it all would have probably very nearly overwhelming— sweat and urine, horses and fermented fish sauce and all. Secondly, because a lot of it was handed down to us— the aesthetic of plaster and tile, pergolas and courtyards, domes and arches, the orders of Doric, Ionic and Corinthian, all translated over the centuries to Classical and Beaux-Arts, and various sorts of Wren and Spanish Colonial. We knew the faces of many of the dramatis personae, for the Romans maintained a pitiless standard of photorealism in their busts of the good and the great; every wart and wrinkle and receding hairline, stern and unsmiling, like faces in Mathew Brady’s Civil War portraits. And we had their writings, as well—poetry, history, philosophy and letters, and in Pompeii, the actual physical streets and houses of one small city, tiny part of the whole that had been the Roman Empire.

We have been looking at the relics and variants of Roman architecture all our lives, here in our New World, two thousand years later, and titillated by accounts of depravity amongst the imperials and the violence of the circuses, which often lead us to overlook the underlying bedrock of Roman virtues; of service to empire and the Senate and People of Rome, the sheer technical knowledge and organization which made possible the great technical marvels of aqueducts and roads and bridges. The emperors and Cesars came and went, but the empire endured nearly as long as the stones that Roman engineers set in place in places as far apart as Leptis Magna, in North Africa, in Trier on the German frontier, along the lines of Hadrian’s wall in the far north of England, and into a bridge over the Guadiana River at Merida in Spain.

Rome drew the whole of the known western world into it, and sent out its engineers and merchants and soldiers, money, language and cultural dominion in return. Often berated for arrogance and corruption, and sometimes quite spectacular displays of depravity… yet the empire endured, because in the end, they were superficial things, laid over the bedrock of Roman virtues and dedication.

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