The faces of Pompeii


Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius

Pompeii and Mt. Vesuvius

This ancient Roman city was buried under tonnes of ash after a catastrophic eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. Today, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Italy’s major tourist spots, attracting millions of visitors each year. The ruins cover a large area and are certainly worth exploring.

Plaster cast

Plaster cast

Pompeii‘s well-known history certainly plays on the mind during a stroll around. The opulent villas, gorgeous fountains and broad, paved streets are testament to its prosperous past, but it’s the faces that tell the story. The faces on the fountains, the frescoes and the statues provide clues to the city’s lavish, some would say hedonistic, lifestyle. However, the events of those horrific days in AD 79, brought everything to an abrupt end. On a walk around the city, with the constant presence of Mount Vesuvius in the background, one can’t help but sense that feeling of impending doom.

Fountain mosaic

Fountain mosaic

The most impressive section is undoubtedly the collection of pottery and other artefacts as well as plaster casts of the citizens of Pompeii and their pets who were buried alive as they tried to escape. It is absolutely remarkable how archeologists discovered voids in the ash layers and realised that these were in fact spaces left by decomposed bodies. By injecting plaster into these voids, they were able to recreate the forms of the people in hunched or foetal positions as they tried to shield themselves from the ash. The shapes are so real that in some cases, traces of the terrified expressions on their faces can still be seen. The contrast between the proud facial expressions on the statues and frescoes, and the horrified looks on the faces of the plaster casts couldn’t be any more stark.

Erotic fresco, Pompeii

Erotic fresco, Pompeii

Many of Pompeii’s rich frescoes were either destroyed or excavated and moved to museums. One of the buildings, the brothel, contains a small but intriguing collection of colourful, erotic frescoes; another highlight of a visit to Pompeii. Most of these erotic frescoes were deemed too explicit when they were discovered and they were taken down and locked up in a secret cabinet at the Naples Archaeological Museum. These frescoes were permanently opened to public viewing only in 2000!

Before my trip to Pompeii, I read an amazing thriller called “Pompeii”. Written by Robert Harris, Pompeii: A Novel is full of suspense and provides an insightful account of the Roman lifestyle and the eruption that destroyed the city. Though the book is fiction, the vivid descriptions of Pompeii during its final days certainly helped me appreciate the sights as I explored the ruins of this fascinating city.

Pompeii fountain

Pompeii fountain

Pompeii fountain

Pompeii is located within the city limits of Naples but is also close to other popular holiday destination such as Sorrento, Amalfi and Positano on the Amalfi Coast, and Capri (a short boat-ride away).

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17 Responses to “The faces of Pompeii”

  1. Sarah Donnelly 10/11/2011 11:57 pm
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    Thanks for this – such a fascinating place but the great fear is that Naples isn’t ready for another eruption. I went last year (and have only just published the piece I wrote on it!), and felt that despite the graphic horror of the 79ad still being very much on display, the current evacuation plans are pretty non-existent.

  2. Elaine Thatcher 25/04/2011 10:55 am
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    Pompeii is definitely on my list of places to visit. I think your point about the contrast between the proud expression of the frescoes and the horrified expression of the casts really shows the arrogance of humankind sometimes and is a reminder that nature will always be more powerful.

    I’ll check out the book too! Thanks :)

  3. Fantastic stuff – this really is a must-see destination. The view into history is nothing short of incredible.

  4. Pres 25/01/2010 6:01 am
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    Keith,
    Thank you for the informative article, my friend. It’s always pleasure to meet similar souls who are passionate about world exploration.
    Keep exploring and keep sharing – the world is a wonderful place!
    Talk soon,
    Pres

  5. velvet 23/12/2009 10:57 am
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    Hi Lisa,
    That must’ve been quite an experience. I bet you got them all quivering in fear with your wicked sense of humour. :-)

    Cheers,
    Keith

  6. Lisa at Wanderlust Women 23/12/2009 2:11 am
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    Hi Keith and thanks for this article and the tip on the novel. I will be checking that out. I remember my recent spring trip to Pompeii. It was raining cats and dogs and I took shelter in between two of the buildings with a few other tourists. The flood waters were rising and we were all forced to jump up a level or two in an effort to stay dry. It was so funny because the rising flood waters prompted a discussion (naturally by my wicked sense of humor), wondering whether we would all rather go in a flood of water or a lava flow. We all had a giggle and then made our escape. :)

  7. velvet 11/12/2009 1:05 am
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    Thanks Johnny for your comment. That’s a great tip!

    Cheers,
    Keith

  8. Johnny Vagabond 11/12/2009 1:03 am
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    A truly amazing place. There’s a lovely campground right outside the gate, set in an old orange tree orchard. Very inexpensive way to visit the ruins.

  9. Fida 10/12/2009 9:11 pm
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    I didn’t know about the erotic frescoes. It’s been so long since I’ve been there. Time to revisit – I love the whole area (well, all of Italy, really ;-). You just brought back great memories. Thanks Keith.

    Greetings from Sorrento, Canada – it’s a tad different here – but we do have a little Island that reminded the founder of Capri. It’s a bit of a stretch, but I guess if one is homesick things look different ;-)

    Fida

  10. velvet 10/12/2009 8:14 pm
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    Thank you Gray for your lovely comment. That’s the first thing that struck me really: the faces. The expressions of pride and pain. Certainly haunting.

    Best regards,
    Keith

  11. Gray 10/12/2009 6:51 pm
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    Thanks for sharing your experience of being there, Keith. To me, the story of Pompeii is one of the most haunting in history. I think there’s this human hope that we can somehow outrun danger–at least have a fighting chance of cheating death–but there was no outrunning this. And it’s a pretty bad way to go. At least they are still remembered after all these years.

  12. velvet 10/12/2009 6:04 pm
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    Thank u Heidi & Adriana for your comments. Heidi, if you’re heading there again, check out Herculaneum too.

    Cheers,
    Keith

  13. Ms Traveling Pants 10/12/2009 5:54 pm
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    I have visited Pompeii. It has been many years, but I remember vividly the combination of awe of the culture, but the chills down my spine from the casts that could not escape the eruption.

    I didn’t have the opportunity to see the brothel art as it was prior to 2000. I would very much enjoy viewing those. Perhaps another visit to the Naples area is in order?

    Ms Traveling Pants
    http://www.mstravelingpants.travel
    @MsTravelingPant

  14. Adriana 10/12/2009 3:32 pm
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    completely amazed with the plaster cast!

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