Growing up in the relative poverty of the American Hippie movement,
Europe was an exotic and distant planet to me
and one I barely dreamed of ever seeing.
My heart raced and I believe I may have even drooled slightly
when my 3rd grade teacher filed us into the library
and read to us about artists like Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci,
the places they lived and worked
and the creations that fired from their brilliant, brimming minds.
As long as I can remember, pictures of far-away lands fueled an ache inside me,
a fierce longing that churned and burned, roiling like lava itching to spread itself out onto the planet.
When I was 14 and living in San Francisco,
the father of my mother's boyfriend handed me a book,
gifted it to me and told me to read it.
It was Gods, Graves and Scholars
by C.W. Ceram.
Then he told me about a place described in the book that I'd never heard of;
about an ancient city buried in ash; about Pompeii.
The book was a bit hefty and dense for a teen to slog through
but I kept it for decades and I never forgot the incredible story of a city buried alive,
lost to the world and found nearly two thousand years later.
So visiting Pompeii was a dream come true for me,
A place I thought I would only ever see in books.
(Temple of Apollo
built in 2nd century BC.)
(Statue next to Temple of Apollo)
By then, having realized my dream of traveling through Europe,
I was still in awe when I arrived at Pompeii,
at truly seeing the place I had only heard about since very young.
And while having seen many of the famous ruins of Greece,
I still wasn't prepared for the astonishing volume of buildings still standing,
not just 'ruins' but entire walls and fountains, columns and reliefs
still displaying their colorful paintings and intricate mosaics.
This past weekend on August 24th, between noon and 1pm,
was the anniversary of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius
and the complete burial of two entire cities
(Herculaneum being the second.)
(And apparently now the day of a 6.0 earthquake in the Napa Valley region!)
On this day in the year 79 A.D.,
in the Campania region of Italy,
the baths were open and people gathered for lunch.
There had been a few warning signs,
small earthquakes, water sources drying up
but they hadn't recognized them. Tremblers were common.
To them, Vesuvius was just a neighboring mountain.
While the citizens of Pompeii sat down to lunch,
the skies darkened and hot ash and rock fell from the sky.
People ran through the streets with pillows over their heads for cover.
Many escaped the city
but those who stayed, about 5,000 of the approximate 20,000,
were caught in the deadly wave of red-hot ash and gas on the second day.
This pyroclastic flow, reaching temperatures of 475 degrees celcius
and moving at 100 miles an hour,
killed instantly those who stayed with their city.
Their bodies, surrounded and buried by the hot ash,
left an ashen crust with cavities large enough for technicians of modern day
to pour plaster casts of the body's exact positions,
sometimes even facial expressions.
What's left of the city itself
is a stunning glimpse into ancient Roman life.
Pompeii was founded around the 6-7 century BC.
(though some of the oldest carbonized tests date back to the 8th century BC.)
The houses of Pompeii were used by the wealthy
which accounts for the size and beauty of some of the interiors.
Holiday villas for wealthy Romans.
Some of the homes were equipped with 'alcoves'
specifically for sexual entertainment
and in 1599, during the digging of a channel, a few frescoes were uncovered,
but were considered so salacious
they were re-covered and left for a few more hundred years.
Many of the wealthy townhouses
had ornate fountains and dazzling mosaics and frescoes...
(House of the Faun)
The above photo shows the House of the Faun,
which was excavated in 1830 by the German Arch. Inst.
and took up 3,000 square meters
(a full city block.)
It is so called because of the dancing faun in the marble impluvium.
Fauns were considered woodland spirits or forest gods similar to Pan
or followers of the Greek Dionysus or Roman Bacchus.
The impluvium was the sunken section usually located in the atrium
used to collect rain water,
the atrium being the open space allowing for light and ventilation.
Water collected in the impluvium was filtered through the cracks into a cistern below.
During hot and dry times, the naturally-cooled water
could be drawn back up into the pool and used to cool the atrium
and thus the house.
For times when the streets ran with water,
stones were placed to create 'crosswalks.'
One of the buildings that sustained the least amount of damage
were the baths (discovered in 1958) also known as The Suburban Baths.
They housed a dressing room (apodyterium),
a lukewarm room (tepidarium),
a hot room (calidarium)
and a cold room (frigidarium.)
It also held an exercise and steam room.
And of course, much gorgeous artwork.
Another of the many things I found most astonishing at Pompeii
were the huge amounts of artifacts still sitting on site.
Shelves and racks and racks and shelves
and glass cases of pots, jugs, art and plaster cast bodies
sitting in the open, a museum in itself.
Pompeii was a flourishing city and commercial port
with much trade of import and export.
Nearby fertile land provided abundantly with grapes, wine, olives and oil, wool, cloth,
animal, vegetable and cereal.
Some of the foods produced and consumed by Pompeiians included
walnuts, chestnuts, garlic and onions,
figs, pears, peaches, and grapes, carob and beans.
The same plaster cast process done on the bodies of Pompeii
have also been done on tree and garden plant roots
yielding information on their planting patterns.
Much of the wine, olive oil and grains were exported
and Pompeii was known for their own specific wine
known as Vesuvinum:
vinum being Latin for wine and you can guess where the rest comes from.
Mastroberardino, a family winemaker in the Campania region,
is working on recreating Pompeiian wines as they might have been in Roman times.
With permission, they are replanting the same vineyards using the same grape varieties.
They've even uncovered underground cellars of terracotta jars
used to store wine beneath the ancient vineyards.
I've got The Chef working on
how to get our hands on some of these new Pompeiian wines
they're calling the Villa dei Misteri project,
named for one of the well-preserved, out-of-town villas
called the Villa of the Mysteries.
One of the heads of the project, Antonio Mastroberardino,
has been called "The Grape Archaeologist."
I'm hoping to take some friends to Pompeii for their first visit.
Having done this before with friends from Greece,
people who are used to their lands dotted with the many Greek ruins,
it is a gift to see the looks on the faces of those who have heard
but never really understood the full extent of the beauty of what has been preserved.
And for myself,
I'm just looking forward to my next visit.
Each time I go, certain 'Houses' are closed to the public
for various maintenance reasons
so each visit yields something new,
some miraculous new discovery.
Just as when I was 14...
the story of Pompeii is imprinted on me.
And after having been there,
their personal stories
keep calling to me...
And one day I will tell them.
(All photos copyright: Kirsten Steen
Judith Harris' 'Pompeii Awakened'
and DVD 'Pompeii, the doomed city.')
(Aside: After spending the better part of August 24th,
off and on, putting together this blog post,
The Chef found a local wine shop who carried exactly 3 bottles
from the Mastroberardino family wines.
They are not from the Villa dei Misteri Project
---recreating the same varietals of grapes on exactly the same vineyards the Pompeiians used
of which very few bottles have been made and even fewer made it to the States
and cost in the $200/bottle range---
but they did carry Lacryma Christi del Vesuvio
or 'The Tears of Christ of Vesuvius.'
The name is derived from the old belief that Christ cried at Lucifer's fall from heaven,
that his tears touched the land and gave divine inspiration to the vineyards.
The deep lava gouges along the sides of Vesuvius make it easy to see why it got its name.
And so far, according to archaeologists who have analysed the residue on the ancient taps,
this wine is the closest equivalent to that which the ancient Romans drank.)