I was staying at a hotel in Sorrento, in southern Italy, in August 1972. From the terrace of the hotel, one can gaze across the Bay of Naples at many other famous destinations. Directly opposite, on the northern shore of the bay, sits the great city of Naples. Over to the left, one can clearly see the isle of Capri. Over to the right, stands Mount Vesuvius, the only volcano in Europe to have erupted in the last one hundred years.
If something more is needed, then cross the hills just behind Sorrento. One then finds oneself on the Amalfi coast, which is part of the northern shore of the Gulf of Salerno. Nearby is the picturesque small town of Positano, built on a very steep slope running down to the sea. It seems surprising that the colorful little houses do not themselves slide into the water.
Among this plethora of attractive options, my strongest memory of my visit is of the ruins of the Roman city of Pompeii. These are very close to Sorrento. When Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, volcanic ash and boiling mud flowed down the mountainside and buried Pompeii. It stayed buried for nearly 1700 years and was not uncovered until 1748. Then, the excavation of the ruins of Pompeii revealed what had been a thriving Roman city, just as it had existed at the time of Jesus Christ and Julius Caesar. The layers of volcanic ash had allowed it to remain undisturbed over the centuries.
Those layers had also acted as a preservative, so far as human remains were concerned. With a lack of air and moisture, there can be little deterioration. The remains of Roman soldiers, on guard duty as the volcano erupted, were found at their posts. They had not attempted to flee from the boiling tide which quickly covered them. The discipline of those guards surely beats even the suicidal “Charge of The Light Brigade” by the British cavalry in 1854 at the Battle of Balaclava during the Crimean War.
Prior to the AD 79 eruption, Pompeii was a prosperous resort town with a population of over 20,000. It was the kind of place, where rich Romans from other parts of the empire would visit for a vacation. The excavated city provides a unique snapshot of how life was lived there in the first century AD. It provides evidence of the smallest details of everyday life at that time. Pompeii was a city of straight streets set on a well planned grid. Walking along those streets today, one can see shops on either side.
On the mosaic floor of one of the shops, I saw in Latin the words Salve lucru. That means “welcome money”, so it seems that encouragement for the customer to spend then was as great as it is today, even if they did not accept Visa or MasterCard. The streets lead to an amphitheatre and a forum. In particular, they lead to a huge swimming pool, today containing no water. I was therefore able to walk down the slope from the shallow end to the deep end. Water was brought into the city by an aquaduct, which can still be seen. That aquaduct provided water for 25 street fountains, 4 public bathhouses and many private houses and businesses.
Many of the buildings are decorated with intricate frescos, some quite erotic. When King Francis I of Naples visited the city with his wife and daughter in 1819, he was so disgusted by what he regarded as pornography that he ordered their removal. The offending frescos remained locked away somewhere until the arrival of the swinging 1960s, at which time they briefly came on display once again. They were still too much for the public to take, even then. When I visited Pompeii in 1972, I think that they had been locked back up. If I had seen them, I am sure that I would have remembered! I therefore regret that I cannot give you a detailed description of their content. They tell me that, in 2000, all these erotic frescos came back on display permanently. However, any minor wishing to view them must produce a letter of permission from his or her parent or guardian.
Yet Pompeii is not just some old ruin. Since its excavation in the 18thcentury, it has been a hugely important place to visit. Even rich English aristocrats undertaking their “Grand Tour” of Europe in the 19th century always took care to visit Pompeii. Today, in a country full of places to see, it is one of Italy’s most visited locations. In 2007, there were over two and a half million visitors. But take care when you visit because, since that fateful day in AD 79, Vesuvius has erupted again on dozens of occasions. It has not erupted since 1944, so it’s probably due to erupt again soon. It would be a pity if your visit was disturbed by waves of volcanic ash and boiling mud.