This past weekend we took a trip with the school to Campania, which is home to many lovely things: Neapolitan driving, mozzarella di bufala, Mt. Vesuvius, and some of the most incredible examples of archaeological remains. Our first stop was in Napoli, where the National Archaeological Museum is. Thanks to the Farnese family and their benefactors/colleagues/inordinate amount of wealth, the museum holds artifacts like the frescoes from the Temple of Isis at Pompeii, and the bronze statues from the Villa of Papyri at Herculaneum, not to mention the Gabinetto Segreto (Secret Cabinet, where they stored all the “obscene” materials from Pompeii), mosaics and more. One of the copies of the Doryphoros stands in a corridor. The Farnese Hercules tiredly nods his head in one of the great rooms. The mosaic version of Alexander the Great, beautiful hair in all its glory, graces a wall. We could have spent all day in that museum; we did not.
Next stop was Pompeii. Approximately 2000 residents lost their lives as a result of the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius on August 24th, 79 A.D. Many of the people found had tried to escape with their life savings or precious belongings. Some hoped the walls would save them from the ash; unfortunately, walls can’t stop the mephitic fumes. Fun stuff. The cool thing about Pompeii, other than the obvious, was that this time the weather was beautiful and cool; as the afternoon waned on, the shadows passed along the old buildings and the tourists cleared out. It seemed that we were some of the last to leave. We saw the one of the lupanares (brothels), where there were paintings outside the bedroom walls for clientèle to choose their preferences; the Villa of Mysteries, most famous for its frescoes depicting a woman being initiated into the mystery cult of Dionysus; the Eumachia building, which was paid for by a woman; the Temple of Isis, which had been rebuilt after the earthquake of 62 AD with the generosity of a six-year-old boy who must have had a very wealthy and pushy father; the Odeon, where poetry readings and concerts could take place; the amphitheater, where in 59 AD, citizens of Pompeii and a neighboring town rioted so riotously that the government required its closure for 10 years (not that they lasted), and much more.
Another highlight of the trip was Paestum, where ruins of Greek temples still stand. The Greeks had been one of the cultures that colonized southern Italy, and they left behind some important examples of Greek architecture. We were followed by a hungry doggie, who helped Alba give her explanations to the temple structures. The museum houses one of my favorite ever pieces of art—the Tomb of the Diver paintings. It was a less common practice for people to paint the insides of their sarcophagi; the Etruscans painted the insides of their tombs, but this was a sarcophagus. One of the paintings is a man, presumably the deceased, diving into the water; the background is sparse, but the symbolic transition between life and death is powerful nonetheless.
That day I had one of the tastiest lunches to date; spaghetti alla vongole (clams) with a mixed plate of bufala cheeses. Yum!
We got a chance to see where the future of museums may be going (we’ll see…)–the MAV. I don’t remember what it stands for; somehow, Virtual fits in there. Inside are interactive features, where students can “uncover” frescoes with the brush of a hand across a screen and “experience” what it must have been like for the archaeologists to find them. Maybe if the rooms were heated to 95 degrees with 30 percent humidity and they had pickaxes and shovels it would be more realistic, but who’s keeping track? It was a cool idea. They also were able to recreate ancient sites like Pompeii and certain buildings, villas, etc. digitally, so visitors can go on virtual tours of these sites. There were virtual components galore, and it was a fun experience, albeit partially misleading. (For example, most depictions of the forum of Pompeii showed it as being completely white in its heyday! FALSE. Statues and columns were painted; the Roman world was a colorful one, in many ways.) A funny thing was the guest book; flipping through it were the generic “this was great!” comments, but some were totally irrelevant. One was “When will Berlusconi die?” Good question.
The next day was the last of the trip: the Reggia di Caserta. Considered the Italian Versailles, the Reggia has a huge expanse of gardens on the grounds, including an English garden with a cryptoporticus of Venus and little temples recreated, that sort of thing. The reggia itself is enormous; the historic apartments had towering ceilings, all painted or gold leafed. It was easy to imagine them having balls and dancing on the beautifully polished floors. We had a chance to meet up with a friend from the dig who lives in Caserta, and we wandered around the gardens together. Lunch consisted of a giant ball of bufala mozzarella, baguette and Toblerone. I highly recommend it.
Another school week is beginning; the weather is rainy off and on, but I’m enjoying this fall transition.