The Next Page: When in Pompeii, reflect on the ruins

After a visit to the ancient Roman town near Naples, Ginny Cunningham considers the fragility of life


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With the rush-hour crowd, we negotiated the station's oddly configured corridors and stairs to the Circumvesuviana platform, where we shouldered our way aboard a graffiti-covered mass of metal, wood and windows masquerading as the train to Sorrento. We wedged ourselves against a luggage rack and studied a schematic above our heads that mapped the train's hourlong, 33-stop journey. My eyes widened. Paddy shrugged. The Circumvesuviana left the station, lurching and swaying.

Days later, with temperatures in the 60s and the sky a reflection of the azure sea, we set out again on the dingy Circumvesuviana for the half-hour trip through the villages and tunnels north of Sorrento to Pompeii. Like a magnet to metal, my gaze was drawn to nearby Vesuvius. I envisioned the more-defined profile it might have had 2,000 years ago and tried to imagine its deadly eruption, the sound of it, the composition and temperature of the pumice-like ash, and how high it spewed before collapsing upon itself and the populace.

As I walked Pompeii's streets, parks, and plazas, my intellect spoke to me of the life that had thrived in this place. The rest of me ached at the power of nature and the agonizing, chaotic grasp of death, darkness and nature's awful embrace.

We'd glided into Napoli Centrale on the Trenitalia Express, stepped onto the concrete platform and into the infamous pickpocket hell of Naples. I gripped my wheeled suitcase, clutched my purse and strode lockstep with my husband, Paddy, adrenaline flowing, alert for crooks and criminals, suspicious of an entire people.

With the rush-hour crowd, we negotiated the station's oddly configured corridors and stairs to the Circumvesuviana platform, where we shouldered our way aboard a graffiti-covered mass of metal, wood and windows masquerading as the train to Sorrento. We wedged ourselves against a luggage rack and studied a schematic above our heads that mapped the train's hour-long, 33-stop journey. My eyes widened. Paddy shrugged. The Circumvesuviana left the station, lurching and swaying.

Our next venture on the Circumvesuviana took place a few days later, when we boarded an empty train in Sorrento for a day trip to Naples. Grateful for the metal seats by the window, we turned our gaze away from the bleak, battered interior and outward to views of soaring, ancient bridgework built over plunging valleys and chasms, picturesque villages and, in the distance, Vesuvius.

I generally lack imagination or empathy for people -- such as Pompeians -- long dead. Petroglyphs in Arizona hadn't brought culture alive for me. They looked like squiggles. What could I expect then of the Pompeii exhibit at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli? Certainly not an encounter with the heart and humanity of the Pompeian people.

But I found myself drawn to displays of small things, such as pots and pans, their handles as finely crafted, precise and intricate as the frescoes in the courtyard. I stopped to gaze and felt myself transported back in time to the side of a woman who grasped this hand-painted, ceramic colander 2,000 years ago, set it over a sink and drained her pasta. What pleasure did she take in this ordinary task, this woman whose kitchen was infused with casual beauty and with art that survived her city's burial? I thought of the tea cup and saucer that a 6-year-old child had crafted for me and felt a kinship that transcended time and space.

Days later, with temperatures in the 60s and the sky a reflection of the azure sea, we set out again on the dingy Circumvesuviana for the half-hour trip through the villages and tunnels north of Sorrento to Pompeii. Like a magnet to metal, my gaze was drawn to nearby Vesuvius. I envisioned the more-defined profile it might have had 2,000 years ago and tried to imagine its deadly eruption, the sound of it, the composition and temperature of the pumice-like ash and how high it spewed before collapsing upon itself and the populace.

At the Pompei Scavi station, Italian, Asian, German, American and English tourists hustled through the doors toward the Villa dei Misteri exit. It wasn't high season yet, and the crowds weren't really crowds.

I hadn't, prior to this trip, visited an archaeological site. What I knew about Pompeii was what I had (not) absorbed as a teenager. Today, though, fully aware of my ignorance and naivete and uncertain how I would feel about old ruins, I nevertheless wanted to be a good tourist. I took photos of the entrance and waved Paddy into the frame.

We didn't sign up for a tour. In other cities, we'd been too technologically challenged to manage the bus tours with their earphones and recording devices. We got stuck on the Italian audio or we were out of sync, listening to descriptions of the monument to Victor Emmanuel as we were passing the Pantheon. In Pompeii, we relied on the guide book.

The ancient stone ramp to the gate is surprisingly long and wide and slopes decidedly upward -- actually, an arched tunnel entrance to the city. Paddy entered the dark interior and was soon lost to sight, but I lingered on the paving stones, gazing at the immense arches. The permanence beneath my feet, the symmetry and the craft with which the rock had been placed and fixed, sure and solid as an Egyptian sphinx, spoke not of inanimate stone but of human masters and sweaty slaves hauling and positioning countless tons of rocks to the path at my feet and the arches over my head.

Inside the gate, we found ourselves at Pompeii's center of power, surrounded by the marble monuments of the Forum and vast public spaces. In the hours prior to the devastation, these spaces surely contained a cosmopolitan throng, self-important bureaucrats, wheelers and dealers, traders in human flesh and household goods, servants and slaves hurrying to market, the owners of lush villas strolling to the baths. All had been buried deeply and thoroughly. Thick grasses and sturdy blossoms erupted and cascaded from rocky crevices atop jaggedly scalped columns, nature's way of taunting human ego and aspiration. But even in ruin, the majestic buildings and monuments spoke of human refusal to be consigned to the dust of the earth.

We lost ourselves in the city, literally and figuratively. We always lose ourselves. I depend on maps. Paddy depends on intuition. Neither works well. I hadn't imagined that the ruins would extend for such a distance or offer so many twists and turns. A classic grid pattern offered easy access to countless pass-through alleys, which, along with our spontaneous right turns toward baths and cloisters, soon had us wondering which way was up.

Finally, back on a main street, we made our way to a shady plateau that overlooked Pompeii's 5,000-seat open-air theater and ate the picnic lunch we'd bought at a Sorrento deli. A spacious quad adjoined the theater, an oversized, green foyer where spectators gathered before the performance and during intermission.

For the next few hours, we walked a westward grid of primary and secondary cross streets. Deep depressions in the paving stones bore vivid testimony to ancient traffic patterns in a sprawling city designed for pedestrians. Spacious, luxurious villas with interior fountains, courtyards and exquisite frescoes stood next door to humble row houses. We passed the public baths, which had hot and cold running water, heated floors, dressing rooms and saunas.

In case I'd forgotten, which I had, children, too, resided in this city, generous with resources for their fitness and training, most notably at the Palaestra, an immense rectangle enclosed within a thick towering hedge. Hundreds of children, innocent and unsuspecting, must have raced and competed and swam in the Palaestra's pool the day before Vesuvius erupted.

Next to the Palaestra is the 20,000-seat amphitheater -- the oldest known, dating to 80 B.C. -- the scene of gladiatorial combat, victory celebrations, brawls, games, pomp and bloodletting, the choicest seats shaded under wide canopies.

Most of the 20,000 residents fled Pompeii during the early hours of the ashen rain. But 2,000 hesitated. They huddled in back rooms with roofs they believed sturdy enough to withstand the eruption. But as timbers fell and pottery shattered, they tried, too late, to flee. Overcome by thermal shock waves or too many breaths tainted with ash or simple weariness, they expired where they fell.

The decomposing bodies created cavities beneath deep layers of volcanic debris. Eighteen centuries later, when the man in charge of the Pompeii dig poured plaster into those cavities, it hardened into the shapes the bodies had taken as they'd been covered by ash. As I stood at the Plexiglas, staring at the cast of a child held in the curve of a woman's body, I heard the voice of a passing child. "Are they real?" he said. "No," said his mother, as she took his hand and hurried on. "They're not real."

As I walked Pompeii's streets, parks and plazas, my intellect spoke to me of the life that had thrived in this place. The rest of me ached at the power of nature and the agonizing, chaotic grasp of death, darkness and nature's awful embrace.

A supreme effort at excavation has unearthed this city, its walls, foundations and even some of its roofs. Many of Pompeii's yawning public spaces and lush fields are naked to sunlight once again, but the life that the city embraced and supported is irretrievably dead and gone. We, the curious thousands who crowd the Forum, don sunglasses and hats against the rising heat and blinding sun and pose for photos -- what do we take away from this place? What does it whisper to us as we depart?

We returned to the gate through which we entered and descended the ramp, turning for one last digital photo of the ruin-blotted hillside now rising between us and Pompeii. We retraced our steps to the Circumvesuviana platform, where we waited for the next train. Aside from the blossoms tumbling over the fence and the green of nearby foliage, there was no beauty here to compare with the faded frescoes and sculpted gardens we'd just passed through in Pompeii.

Even the poured concrete on which we now stood seemed temporary in relation to the streets we'd just walked. Nothing within my field of vision transcended the meanness of the station, the banality of a teen-ager wolfing an oversized wedge of pizza.

But how are we different, I wonder, from the throng that scurried through the streets of Pompeii that fateful day? Aren't we the same curious mix of humanity -- full of dreams, fears and contradictions, grasping and needy? Aren't we stunned by sharp insights about the shabbiness of our lives, ennobled by a spirit that sometimes redeems those lives, and all too quick to deny both the best and the worst of ourselves? How are we different from those who were struck down in their prime in this city?

The teen-ager offered his mom a bite. One tourist asked another to take a photo of his group in front of the Pompei Scavi sign. The stranger smiled and nodded assent.

The Circumvesuviana clattered into the station, and the graffiti-tattooed doors opened. It was late in the day and only a few tourists disembarked before those of us on the platform got aboard. We were eager to rest our weary legs and focused on finding a seat, and yet, we were alert, aware, of what?

We live. We breathe. We share an unbearably precious present that is ours for a mere moment. Maybe we'll have this cherished life tomorrow. Maybe we won't.

We didn't say much, and we didn't push against one another at all.

Ginny Cunningham (g.ginnywrites@verizon.net) is a playwright and free-lance writer from Morningside.

With the rush-hour crowd, we negotiated the station's oddly configured corridors and stairs to the Circumvesuviana platform, where we shouldered our way aboard a graffiti-covered mass of metal, wood and windows masquerading as the train to Sorrento. We wedged ourselves against a luggage rack and studied a schematic above our heads that mapped the train's hourlong, 33-stop journey. My eyes widened. Paddy shrugged. The Circumvesuviana left the station, lurching and swaying.

Our next venture on the Circumvesuviana took place a few days later, when we boarded an empty train in Sorrento for a day trip to Naples. Grateful for the metal seats by the window, we turned our gaze away from the bleak, battered interior and outward to views of soaring, ancient bridgework built over plunging valleys and chasms, picturesque villages and, in the distance, Vesuvius.

I generally lack imagination or empathy for people -- such as Pompeians -- long dead. Petroglyphs in Arizona hadn't brought culture alive for me. They looked like squiggles. What could I expect then of the Pompeii exhibit at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli? Certainly not an encounter with the heart and humanity of the Pompeian people.

But I found myself drawn to displays of small things, such as pots and pans, their handles as finely crafted, precise and intricate as the frescoes in the courtyard. I stopped to gaze, and in the wisp of time between one glass museum case and the next, I felt myself transported to the side of a woman, who must have grasped this hand painted, ceramic colander 2,000 years ago, set it over a sink and drained her pasta. What pleasure did she take in this ordinary task, this woman whose kitchen was infused with casual beauty and with art that survived her city's burial? I thought of the tea cup and saucer that a 6-year-old child had crafted for me and felt a kinship that transcended time and space.

Days later, with temperatures in the 60s and the sky a reflection of the azure sea, we set out again on the dingy Circumvesuviana for the half-hour trip through the villages and tunnels north of Sorrento to Pompeii. Like a magnet to metal, my gaze was drawn to nearby Vesuvius. I envisioned the more-defined profile it might have had 2,000 years ago and tried to imagine its deadly eruption, the sound of it, the composition and temperature of the pumice-like ash, and how high it spewed before collapsing upon itself and the populace.

At the Pompei Scavi station, Italian, Asian, German, American and English tourists hustled through the doors toward the Villa Dei Misteri exit. It wasn't high season yet, and the crowds weren't really crowds.

I hadn't, prior to this trip, visited an archaeological site. What I knew about Pompeii was what I had (not) absorbed as a teen-ager. Today, though, fully aware of my ignorance and naivete and uncertain how I would feel about old ruins, I nevertheless wanted to be a good tourist. I took photos of the entrance and waved Paddy into the frame.

We didn't sign up for a tour. In other cities, we'd been too technologically challenged to manage the bus tours with their ear phones and recording devices. We got stuck on the Italian audio or we were out of sync, listening to descriptions of the monument to Victor Emmanuel as we were passing the Pantheon. In Pompeii, we relied on the guide book.

The ancient stone ramp to the gate is surprisingly long and wide and slopes decidedly upward -- actually, an arched tunnel entrance to the city. Paddy entered the dark interior and was soon lost to sight, but I lingered on the paving stones, gazing at the immense arches. The permanence beneath my feet, the symmetry and the craft with which the rock had been laid and fixed, sure and solid as an Egyptian sphinx, spoke not of inanimate stone but of human masters and sweaty slaves hauling and positioning countless tons of rocks to the path at my feet and the arches that towered over my head.

Inside the gate, we found ourselves at Pompeii's center of power, surrounded by the marble monuments of the Forum and vast public spaces. In the hours prior to the devastation, these spaces surely contained a cosmopolitan throng, self-important bureaucrats, wheelers and dealers, traders in human flesh and household goods, servants and slaves hurrying to market, the owners of lush villas strolling to the baths. All had been buried deeply and thoroughly. Thick grasses and sturdy blossoms erupted and cascaded from rocky crevices atop jaggedly scalped columns, nature's way of taunting human ego and aspiration. But even in ruin, the majestic buildings and monuments spoke of human refusal to be consigned to the dust of the earth.

We lost ourselves in the city, literally and figuratively. We always lose ourselves. I depend on maps. Paddy depends on intuition. Neither works well. I hadn't imagined that the ruins would extend for such a distance or offer so many twists and turns. A classic grid pattern offered easy access to countless pass-through alleys, which, along with our spontaneous right turns toward baths and cloisters, soon had us wondering which way was up.

Finally, back on a main street, we made our way to a shady plateau that overlooked Pompeii's 5,000 seat open-air theater and ate the picnic lunch we'd bought at a Sorrento deli. A spacious quad adjoined the theater, an oversized, green foyer where spectators gathered before the performance and during intermission.

For the next few hours, we walked a westward grid of primary and secondary cross streets. The speed bumps were wicked -- trios of strategically located raised granite blocks that forced charioteers to negotiate their way slowly. Deep depressions in the paving stones bore vivid testimony to ancient traffic patterns in a sprawling city designed for pedestrians. Spacious, luxurious villas with interior fountains, courtyards and exquisite frescoes stood next door to humble row houses. We passed the public baths, which had hot and cold running water, heated floors, dressing rooms and saunas.

In case I'd forgotten, which I had, children, too, resided in this city, generous with resources for their fitness and training, most notably at the Palaestra, an immense rectangle enclosed within a thick towering hedge. Hundreds of children, innocent and unsuspecting, must have raced and competed and swam in the Palaestra's pool the day before Vesuvius erupted.

Next to the Palaestra is the 20,000-seat amphitheater--the oldest known, dating to 80 B.C.--the scene of gladiatorial combat, victory celebrations, brawls, games, pomp and bloodletting, the choicest seats shaded under wide canopies.

Most of the 20,000 residents fled Pompeii during the early hours of the ash rain. But 2,000 hesitated. They huddled in back rooms with roofs they believed sturdy enough to withstand the eruption. But as timbers fell and pottery shattered, they tried, too late, to flee. Overcome by thermal shock waves or too many breaths tainted with ash or simple weariness, they expired where they fell.

The decomposing bodies created cavities beneath deep layers of volcanic debris. Eighteen centuries later, when the man in charge of the Pompeii dig poured plaster into those cavities, it hardened into the shapes the bodies had taken as they'd been covered by ash. As I stood at the Plexiglas, staring at the cast of a child held in the curve of a woman's body, I heard the voice of a passing child. "Are they real?" he said. "No," said his mother, as she took his hand and hurried on. "They're not real."

As I walked Pompeii's streets, parks, and plazas, my intellect spoke to me of the life that had thrived in this place. The rest of me ached at the power of nature and the agonizing, chaotic grasp of death, darkness and nature's awful embrace.

A supreme effort at excavation has unearthed this city, its walls, foundations and even some of its roofs. Many of Pompeii's yawning public spaces and lush fields are naked to sunlight once again, but the life that the city embraced and supported is irretrievably dead and gone. We, the curious thousands who crowd the Forum, don sunglasses and hats against the rising heat and blinding sun and pose for photos -- what do we take away from this place? What does it whisper to us as we depart?

We returned to the gate through which we entered and descend the ramp, turning for one last digital photo of the ruin-blotted hillside now rising between us and Pompeii. We retraced our steps to the Circumvesuviana platform, where we waited for the next train. Aside from the blossoms tumbling over the fence and the green of nearby foliage, there was no beauty here to compare with the faded frescoes and sculpted gardens we'd just passed through in Pompeii.

Even the poured concrete on which we now stand seems temporary in relation to the streets we'd just walked. Nothing within my field of vision transcends the meanness of the station, the banality of a teenager wolfing an oversized wedge of pizza.

But how are we different, I wonder, from the throng that scurried through the streets of Pompeii that fateful day? Aren't we the same curious mix of humanity -- full of dreams, fears and contradictions, grasping and needy? Aren't we stunned by sharp insights about the shabbiness of our lives, ennobled by a spirit that sometimes redeems those lives, and all too quick to deny both the best and the worst of ourselves? How are we different from those who were struck down in their prime in this city?

The teenager offers his mom a bite. One tourist asks another to please take a photo of his group in front of the Pompeii Scavi sign. The stranger smiles and nods assent.

The Circumvesuviana clatters into the station, and the graffitied doors open. It's late in the day and only a few tourists disembark before those of us on the platform go board. We're anxious to rest our weary legs and focused on finding a seat, and yet, we are alert, aware, of what? We live. We breathe. We share an unbearably precious present that is ours for a mere moment. Maybe we'll have this cherished life tomorrow. Maybe we won't. We don't say much, and we don't push against one another at all.

Ginny Cunningham (g.ginnywrites@verizon.net) is a free-lance writer from Morningside.


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