Tuesday, June 21, 2005

The Trick to Pompeii

The trick to Pompeii is not to get there early, but to get there late.

Aim to arrive around 5.00 pm as the hoards are leaving. Get an audio guide and you will have two and a half hours to wander undisturbed in the cool of the evening.

There are also moonlight tours of Pompeii now, though these are difficult because the guided ones don't end until 11.30 by which time it's probably too late to get back to Sorrento.

On Monday we arrive at the site around 5.30. I have two objectives:
1. See the exhibition about ancient food, De Gustibus
2. To make a pilgrimage to the House of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, famous to all those who have ever studied (or taught) Latin using the Cambridge Latin Course.

The exhibition is disappointing, just a few display cards about Roman food in Italian and badly translated English, and a little bed of herbs that were known in Pompeian times. None of these are new to me except 'sparrow-grass': asparagus! But there's a nice fresco of a cockerel on one of the boards and that's one of the things I'm collecting for this book. Does he have blue feathers?

We also see a lovely pomegranate bush in bloom. There was one at Baiae, too. They have orange-red trumpet-shaped blossoms this time of year. Must work that in.

Richard is fading fast so I leave him by an ancient fountain and turn off the Decumanus Maxiums to run five blocks north up the street which leads from the Stabian Gate. There I find the villa of Lucius Caecilius Iucundus, the banker. It is gated off but the marble lararium is close enough for me to be able to reach through the iron bars and brush its smooth marble surface with my fingertips. I can see the atrium and the impluvium, planted round with pink and white oleanders in bloom. I can't see the dog mosaic but perhaps it is in Naples now.


On the way back we see another delightful dog mosaic (above). It is very dusty so we pour the last of our bottled water onto it to bring up the colour.

Earlier in the afternoon we visited the Villa of Poppea at Oplontis. This magnificent villa, belonging to the Emperor Nero's floozy and wife, was only unearthed in 1974. It is pretty much completely standing. We were the only people there except for the usual clutch of fonctionari relaxing in the shade of a tree. There are columns, frescoes, a wonderful mosaic that looks as if it comes from the 1960's and a huge swimming pool which botanical archaeologists can tell was planted round with oleander and lemon trees.

We find the private baths of the house and an amazing column painted with a fish-scale design I have never seen before. This reminds me of Aubrey Beardsley's Art Deco designs. What an amazing place!

Caroline Lawrence at the Villa Poppaea at Oplontis in 2005

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