Friday, August 23, 2013

The Last Day of a City: August 23, Pompeii

This post is part of my Travels with Cadfael series, travelogues of the amazing trips I took with a Benedictine monk whom I had met at Solesmes while studying Gregorian chant.

It’s the mouth of a volcano. Yes, mouth, and lava tongue. A body, a monstrous living body, both male and female. It emits, ejects. It is also an interior, an abyss. Something alive, that can die.

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover

Cadfael and I pick up the walking sticks and start the ascent to the ancient gaping hole that is the top of Mount Vesuvius. The sun is blistering hot, even for late
August. Our column of polyglot pilgrims— dense, and nearly single file—winds its way through the long switchbacks, slowly rising in altitude. The ground is hard, fine dust, silky ash, and so very oooooold.

Having left his horse with a groom, grasping his walking stick, pouch slung over one shoulder, the Cavaliere marched firmly up the slope. . . . He never approached the crater without apprehension—partly the fear of danger, partly the fear of disappointment.

We feel no disappointment and only fear’s counterpart: awe. We are like ants crawling on the side of overwhelming past power and the threat of potentially more destruction to come. It’s sleeping, somnolent, now, but there is no denying the seismic power beneath the dust, real power, like when the gods and ancient Rome ruled the known world.

The souvenir stand doesn’t even bother me—it harkens back to the cartes postales tradition from the centuries of visitors, the Grand Tour to Victorian times to now.

After taking in as much as we could of this natural death machine it was time to make our way down, and move on to the victim.

It is, purely by happenstance, August 23 in 2004. I find it chilling to be walking in the actual streets that would be buried under twenty feet of ash the next day in Anno Domini 79, obliterating Pompeii and Herculaneum.

In a world of overhype, Pompeii stands out as a stunning, genuinely stirring destination that also does not disappoint. The city is huge—we wander from street to street, entering a villa here, a brothel there, with more and more blocks as far as the eye can see.

I imagine the shadows of the townspeople everywhere, going about their daily life with no idea that they would soon be buried under a pyroclastic flow: fast-moving currents of hot gas, ash and rock collectively known tephra that fell at a rate of 700 km/hour at a temperature now thought to have been 350 degrees celscius, for nearly twenty hours. Wiki tells us that the thermal energy released was 100,000 times that of the A-bomb dropped on Hiroshima.

We wander out to the amphitheatre, where I hit my head walking through a low doorway and am stunned for a moment. Feels like a little blood on the scalp, I'm feeling a little woozy . . . .

In the TV version of this blog, this will trigger a dream sequence:

Scene up: Handsome Roman couple in a lavishly frescoed living chamber with an open-aired sky light and indoor fountain

Gaius Cadfaelius: Must we go to Lucius' tonight? We’ve already sat through two of his daughter’s Dionysian initiations. Isn’t that enough?

M.A Pellia
: Yes, keep dressing or we’ll be late. You will need his support when you run for magistrate next year.

Cadfaelius: But their place is near the temple of the Sybilline Sisterhood. Those chicks give me the willies.

M.A.Pellia: Is that what you’re wearing? I wouldn’t be caught dead with you like that. Go put on your formal toga . . . .

Dream sequence ends--

In real life it just meant that Cad kept asking me, "Are you all right?" worried that a trip to an Italian emergency room was SO not on our agenda. We'd already had a flat tire.

We make our way to the Garden of the Fugitives, where there is a grouping of plaster cast victims, frozen in time. It was like looking at an eerie George Segal sculpture, except that these had been real people and there was no whimsy.

The sun continued strong on that August day, and there is almost no shade in Pompeii. We popped in to a few more of the specific doma, where I was particularly satisfied to see one of the original Cave Canem: "Beware of the Dog" floor tiles. Such a long way, in every sense, from the black/white/de-glo orange vinyl plastic “Beware of the dog” sign on the neighbor’s cyclone fence of my suburban childhood.

Of course the next day, August 24, did not see a repeat of history, and I woke up safe and sound in my hotel, where I spent the morning with Sontag’s The Volcano Lover which so richly combines legend, history, and Lord Nelson and Lady Hamilton..

Vesuvius was once a young man, who saw a nymph lovely as a diamond. She scratched his heart, and his soul, he could think of nothing else. Breathing more and more heatedly, he lunged at her. The nymph, scorched by his attentions, jumped into the sea and became the island today called Capri. Seeing this, Vesuvius went mad, He loomed, his sighs of fire spread, little by little he became a mountain. And now, as immobilized as his beloved, forever beyond his reach, he continues to throw fire and makes the city of Naples tremble. How the helpless city regrets that the youth did not get what he desired!

Susan Sontag, The Volcano Lover