When Mount Vesuvius violently erupted in 79 A.D., burying thousands of people under its volcanic debris, a cosmopolitan society vanished. Just like that -- gone.
Pompeii. Herculaneum. Stabiae.
Now, nearly 2,000 years after one of history's most storied natural disasters, Pompeii has re-emerged as a cultural zeitgeist. Filmmaker Roman Polanski will begin shooting the movie Pompeii, based on Robert Harris' best-selling thriller of the same name, in Italy this summer. A year ago, Smithsonian magazine weighed in with a cover story on the ancient city, paying homage to the remarkable traveling exhibition, Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption. The exhibition is in Beijing. It will return to the United States in the fall.
Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center in Mobile, Ala., has curated its own exhibit, A Day in Pompeii, which contains artifacts that have never left Italy until now.
"It's a compelling story because it's a human story," says Mike Sullivan, the Exploreum's executive director. "Archaeologically, it's an incredible snapshot." After it closes in June, the exhibit will travel to science museums in St. Paul, Minn.; Charlotte, N.C.; and San Diego.
During three visits to Italy in the past year, my husband and I got hooked on the incredible tale that Pliny the Younger, a witness to the Aug. 24 eruption, described in a letter as "a night blacker and thicker than any nights we have known."
Pompeii, just eight miles from Vesuvius, is the most familiar casualty of the violent eruption. But Herculaneum and Stabiae, two seaside resorts, were also buried. The University of Maryland is a co-sponsor of Restoring Ancient Stabiae, an effort by Italian and U.S. preservationists to transform the Roman seaside villas of Stabiae, still being excavated, into Europe's most innovative archaeological park.
Standing sentry over the Sorrentine Peninsula today, as it did in 79 A.D., is Mount Vesuvius. Rising 4,200 feet high, this complex volcano overlooks the Bay of Naples. Nearby are the cities of Sorrento and Naples and, just off the coast, the island of Capri. When it erupted, Pliny the Younger described a 20-mile-long cloud of superheated gas, ash and rock that rolled down the mountain, destroying everything in its path. At the time, Vesuvius was just a lovely green mountain, known for its vineyards and wild boars. No one suspected the dangers it held.
When we climbed to the summit in January, Vesuvio, as it's called in Italy, was covered in dense fog. It's hard not to have a healthy respect for the volcano, and it's impossible not to wonder when Vesuvius will act out again. The last major eruption was in 1944.
Last month, Italian volcanologists reported the results of their first three-dimensional super-computer simulation of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Their findings: If they are not evacuated, at least 300,000 people living near the volcano would be killed the next time it erupts. Scientists say they fear the next eruption could rival the one in 79 A.D.
This mountain isn't done yet.
When Pompeii disappeared, buried by ash and rocks, it was still rebuilding from a disastrous earthquake more than a decade earlier. The city lay covered until the late 1700s, when excavation efforts revealed the remains of a thriving center known for its commerce, politics and arts.
Nowhere is the drama of ancient Pompeii more evident than at the Forum - a large open grassy piazza - and beyond it, looming in the distance, Mount Vesuvius. During its peak, this was the site of temples, public buildings, a money exchange, a fish market, wine shops and a wool market.
And nowhere is the story more poignant than in the Garden of the Fugitives, which houses the bodies of 15 people caught in a field next to the amphitheater as they were trying to flee the eruption. When we visited, I had just finished reading Harris' novel, Pompeii, which describes the eruption like this: "It looked as if a sturdy brown arm had punched through the peak and was aiming to smash a hole in the roof of the sky ... bang bang: that double crack - and then a hard-edge rumble, unlike any other sound in nature, that came running across the plain."
It certainly overtook these victims, who died from poisonous sulfur fumes. Remarkably, their bodies were encased in ashes and pumice that solidified over time. When the area was discovered in the 1960s, cavities in the ground created by the decayed bodies were filled with plaster. It is these lifelike plaster casts that show today's visitors the ancient inhabitants of Pompeii, frozen forever in time.
Our guide, Mattia Buondonno, has worked at the site for 30 years. His father is a mosaic restoration expert there. Walking through Pompeii with Buondonno, it was astonishing to think about what once existed: private and public schools, gambling rooms, three cemeteries, 29 brothels, 128 bars, several hundred restaurants, two theaters, bath houses, an amphitheater that seated 20,000, shops, villas, temples, houses and a bakery from which was retrieved 40 loaves of carbonized bread.
Buondonno, who has guided Harris, Mel Gibson and Meryl Streep, pointed out a number of fascinating visuals: election slogans painted on storefronts; the ubiquitous phallic symbol meaning fertility, virility and prosperity; chariot track marks in the street; and directional signs - one big stone at the start of a street means one-way traffic and three stones signify "no chariots, pedestrian-only."
Today, the city's ruins are an enormous open-air museum visited by more than 2 million people a year. (Tip: Arrive when the site opens at 8:30 a.m. It can get pretty crowded.) Only 109 acres of the 163-acre site have been excavated, and the emphasis now is on restoration.
When we visited Pompeii in October, the remains of a brothel had just opened to public viewing after a two-year restoration. The ancient city is known worldwide for its erotic art, and above the brothel's stone beds are paintings depicting what a patron might request of a prostitute. Many of Pompeii's greatest art treasures - frescoes of unbelievable brilliance, mosaics, statues and pottery - are on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, one of the world's leading archaeological museums. Erotica recovered from the brothels of Pompeii and Herculaneum are housed in the museum's Secret Cabinet. (Entry to the Secret Cabinet is by reservation only. Children younger than 14 must be accompanied by a parent.)
At one point during our walk through Pompeii, Buondonno bent down and gathered up a handful of white stones: pumice, still there after almost 2,000 years.
The same eruption that destroyed Pompeii also buried Herculaneum, on the coast nine miles away, but the two situations could not have been more different.
Unlike the inhabitants of Pompeii, people in Herculaneum died of thermal shock - killed by a burning cloud of ash and toxic gas with heat high enough to blacken bones. The scorching gas, reaching temperatures of more than 1,000 degrees, alternated with torrents of volcanic mud, which gradually buried this town of 5,000 under 75 feet of debris. Eventually, the town solidified into a shelf of rock.
And it is the solidified rock that has resulted in such phenomenal preservation - plants, fabrics, furniture, food, structural parts of wooden buildings and a Roman boat with the skeleton of its rower. In the 1980s, 300 human skeletons were found in vaulted storerooms at the ancient marina. Until then, archaeologists had recovered only 30.
Herculaneum, a holiday resort where Rome's intelligentsia lived in high style, has an entirely different feel than Pompeii, a sprawling commercial center by comparison. Unlike Pompeii, it's compact and built on a tidy urban grid. Just one-quarter of the ancient town has been excavated. The rest lies under the modern town of Ercolano.
A thrilling yield: the Villa of the Papyri, one of the most luxurious homes ever uncovered in the ancient world. As writer Maria Emma Antonietta Pirozzi writes in her book Herculaneum, the "first fruits of the excavation [in 1750] were greeted with rapture by all lovers of antiquity." Among the extraordinary artifacts discovered there: frescoes, flooring, marble columns and cornices, 50 marble sculptures, 21 bronze ones, and 1,758 Greek and Latin papyrus scrolls. Excavations are still in progress, but much of the treasure is on display at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Throughout Herculaneum, thought to date to the fourth century B.C., are stark reminders of Vesuvius' fury: traces of hardened volcanic mud, where it entered through windows; carbonized wooden beams; a carbonized bed and stool.
Walking through town, it's easy to imagine what everyday life might have been like: a stroll on the cliff, overlooking the sea; a pause at the taberna for a drink; a soak in the bath house, first in the frigidarium (the cold bathing room), then the tepidarium (the warm) and finally the calidarium (the hot).
Not to be missed: Hall of the Augustals, custodians of the cult of Emperor Augustus. Frescoes of brilliant color - the original blue, white, yellow and red - show Hercules in battle and at the entrance of Olympus, the mythical home of the Greek gods.
In the 1950s, a local high school principal along with a group of janitors and students began excavating some unremarkable-looking farmland in Castellammare di Stabia, about four miles from Pompeii. Their findings: the Villas of Stabiae, luxurious seaside villas unparalleled in the ancient Roman world because of their size and decoration.
University of Maryland architecture professor Matt Bell calls Stabiae "the Malibu of ancient Rome." This is where Rome's social elite took up summer residence to entertain and relax. It was also a scene of tremendous political power. "Stabiae represents some of the largest villas of that era. It's unique," says Bell, vice president of Restoring Ancient Stabiae, or the RAS Foundation, the site's nonprofit patron. "It is the only place, as far as anybody knows, from that period that has such a concentration of villas."
Ancient Stabiae is still relatively undiscovered by tourists, but that should change. A visitor's center is scheduled to open within 18 months, and the six-year-old RAS Foundation is getting word-of-mouth with a U.S. traveling exhibition, In Stabiano, currently at the Chazen Museum of Art in Madison, Wis. A new worldwide exhibit, Otium Ludens, or At Leisurely Play, will open at the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia, next month.
As many as seven villas are believed to exist, and two have been excavated: Villa San Marco and Villa Arianna, both open to the public. The site is very much a work in progress. (Every summer, UM dispatches about 25 students to Stabiae as part of a work-study program.) Last summer, a small RAS-funded excavation team, X-raying the ground with remote sensors, discovered that Villa San Marco's peristyle was much longer than believed. Other discoveries included a set of stucco frescoes and the first human skeleton ever found at Stabiae.
There is little about the approach to Villa San Marco that suggests something wonderful is about to happen. But walk through the doorway, as we did last fall, and a bit of magic occurs. First, there's a large atrium where Romans kept their safes in plain view to demonstrate to visitors their wealth. There are not one, but two, enclosed gardens. At one end of a long peristyle court is an apsidal nymphaeum, or grotto, with illusionist stuccoes, frescoes, glass mosaic, fountains and a hidden portico, providing a cool place for a summer walk. And then there are the views: mountains, gardens, the Bay of Naples.
Pompeii, Herculaneum, and the hidden treasure of Stabiae.
"It's an awfully romantic notion that a place can go away for almost 2,000 years, gets rediscovered, and you can look at it today almost as it was then," Bell says. "This is a magical part of the world. You can live next to a volcano, next to the sea, and just have this wonderful sense of place."
IF YOU GO
From the Baltimore area, the best bet is to fly Air France from Dulles International Airport to Naples, Italy, with a plane change in Paris. Round-trip fares, based on summer rates, start at $1,377, including taxes. Note: Cruise ships regularly call on Naples and Sorrento, Italy. Visits to Pompeii and Mount Vesuvius are among the most popular shore excursions. Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae are accessible by car. You can also get there by train, the circumvesuviana, from both Naples and Sorrento.
The three sites - Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae - are open 8:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m. April-October and 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. November-March. They are closed Jan. 1, May 1 and Dec. 25.
-- A one-day ticket to Pompeii or Herculaneum costs 10 euros (about $13.30). A one-day ticket to Stabiae costs 5 euros (about $6.67) and includes admission to two other sites in the region, Oplontis and Boscoreale. There is also a three-day pass, 18 euros (about $24), which grants admission to all five sites.
-- Admission does not include a guided tour. However, audio guides, including a version for children, are available at Pompeii and Herculaneum. You can rent one audio guide for 6.5 euros (about $8.67), or four for 20 euros (about $26.67).
-- Stabiae has no amenities. Herculaneum does have restrooms and a small gift shop. Pompeii is fully loaded with a visitor's center, and just outside the site, there are restaurants and shops.
-- Via Corso Italia 275, Sorrento. 0039-081-8784844 or www.michelangelohotel.it. Rates start at $280. Stylish hotel centrally located in the heart of Sorrento, a good jumping off point for Pompeii, Capri and the Amalfi Coast. Can walk to Sorrento shops, attractions, marina, train station. Large rooms, swimming pool, full breakfast.
-- Piazza Cardinali Sisto Riori, Sforza, Naples, 0039-081-2110066 or www.caravaggiohotel.it. Rates start at $142. Eighteen guest rooms in modern hotel housed in 17th-century palace. Within walking distance to museums, shops, metro station. Air-conditioning, Internet connection, full breakfast.
National Archaeological Museum of Naples
-- Open 9 a.m.-8 p.m. daily, except Tuesdays. Admission is 6.5 euros, and the audio guide costs 4 euros (about $5.33). Credit cards are not accepted. The museum is closed Dec. 25 and Jan. 1.
Go to www.pompeiisites.org, stabiae.org or www.archeona.arti. beniculturali.it for more information.