Friday, November 28, 2014

A Moment In Time

7:19 PM

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And the walls kept tumbling down in the city that we love.

Sound familiar? That’s a line from the song Pompeii by the English rock band Bastille. If taken literally, the lyrics may have been simply describing the tragedy in AD 79: the first volcanic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that completely buried the Roman city of Pompeii and its neighboring areas. But what is the point of even capturing it in the music?

Pompeii was a small but wealthy city in southern Italy during the reign of Roman Empire. Back then, the empire ruled over much of the known world. Various goods like gold and artworks were exchanged among different Roman cities, most of which also traded with neighbors like Greece and Spain, from whom they acquired luxuries like jewels and glassware.

Ten kilometers away from the city stood a mount called Vesuvius. In AD 62, years before the explosion, Pompeii was severely destroyed by a massive earthquake. In the following years, especially a few weeks before the volcano exploded, there had already been minor tremors that the people ignored.

Finally, it came. The 24th of August of the year 79 was to be the last day that Pompeii would be physically remembered for a long time. A famous naturalist named Pliny the Elder, who lived in the nearby city of Misenum, noticed an unfamiliar darkness above the volcano around noon. He then received a call for help from a friend named Rectina, who lived near the volcano, so he traveled to Pompeii. Unfortunately, his efforts led to his demise, as toxins from the ash scattered poison in the air. His nephew, Pliny the Younger, who witnessed the eruption as well, wrote a detailed account of what he and his uncle saw. In his account, he described “broad sheets of fire and leaping flames that glared through the darkness of the night.”

The tragedy, brought on by a thunderous explosion, caught the people by surprise. Winds scattered the clouds of ash southward, further spreading danger. Ash and volcanic rock showered Pompeii and other cities for more than 19 agonizing hours. Rapidly-flowing streams of burning gas and ash called pyroclastic flows buried the cities. Thick, black clouds of ash blocked the daylight over the area. As if all this was not enough, the volcano erupted again the next day, this time with much greater power. More ash and pumice, combined with rain, erased any traces of Pompeii’s civilization.

The buried city of Pompeii was forgotten.

The Death of Pliny by Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes (1813) 

One day in 1709, a farmer named Resina found marbles on a well – this led to a hunt for lost cities. Then, in 1864, a man named Giuseppe Fiorelli led excavations in the area and became famous for developing methods in tracing people and other things that had decomposed over time. A decomposed body could be traced because it leaves a space inside the ground. One way to see how it looked like is to fill the spaces with liquid plaster to form a cast, which would be removed from the ground after it dried out. Fiorelli’s team also discovered artifacts and other objects that showed how the Pompeiians used to live, and the excavation itself told us even more.

Fiorelli’s method of tracing bodies 

Most activities took place in the main square, or the forum, where people worshipped their deities in temples and went shopping. They also loved to write and draw grafitti on the walls, where they shared their feelings about their experiences, whether these were love messages or students complaining about their teachers.

Education was very important. Young children were tutored at home: boys studied law and sports, while girls were taught household activities like weaving. Lazy pupils were beaten and whipped by tutors to discipline them.

Children matured early since they were treated like adults to prepare them for the real world. Boys held a coming-of-age party at the age of 15, in which they offered their bulla to the gods by placing it on their household shrine, the lararium. A bulla was a golden amulet worn by baby boys which symbolized the baby’s freedom, meaning that he was not a slave. Meanwhile, by the age of 14, girls were considered as adults and parents could arrange their daughters’ marriage. This was not easy, though, since they were very superstitious and chose the dates for events carefully. They avoided holding events in May, when they paid homage to the dead.

Of course, people had time for leisure, too. Like any other person, Pompeiians loved to take baths. Their public baths were divided into several parts: women’s baths were separated from the men’s, with each having hot, warm, and cold rooms. Public baths, although used by people to relax, were described as noisy places where people chattered and sang loudly.

The amphitheatre

Pompeiians loved going to the theatre, where they watched plays of different genres. They also went to the amphitheatre to watch gladiators fight with each other. Most of these gladiators were slaves, while some were volunteers interested in the prize money. Just like today, fans from opposite sides sometimes fought – usually with knives.

The houses of rich Pompeiians were really huge, like the so-called House of the Faun, which was so named by archeologists because of a statue of a faun in the main courtyard or atrium. The gardens and ponds allowed people to relax and play games outside. Slaves served as cooks, who also used some kitchen utensils we use today, like graters and strainers.

The House of the Faun 

With the help of preserved bodies, writings, and personal writings from Pompeii, we are able to see how these people lived before their civilization was erased by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. If there is something truly significant about the excavation of the city of Pompeii, it is that it tells us that these people lived. It is physical, occupying space, an image we can touch and feel that literally brings one back 2000 years, when the walls kept tumbling down in the city that we love. Bastille’s Pompeii brings us back to a place we once were. For Pompeii, is not just about Italy in itself: It is about the history of humanity captured in a moment in time.

Pompeii today

“Archeological Site of Pompeii.” Photograph. Shore Excursions. Cooperativa Tasso, 2014. 14 Nov 2014. Berry, Joanne. “Amphitheatre.” Photograph. Pompeii Art and Architecture Gallery. BBC, 2011. Web. 14 Nov 2014. 

Cole, Michael. “House of the Faun.” Photograph. House of the Faun. Pompeii Virtual Tour, 2001. Web. 14 Nov 2014. 

De Valenciennes, Pierre-Henri. The Death of Pliny. 1813. Musee des Augustuns, Toulouse. Napoli Unplugged. Web. 14 Nov 2014. "Eruption of Mount Vesuvius Begins." N.p., 2014. Web. 10 Nov 2014. 

Rice, Chris, and Melanie Rice. Pompeii: The Day a City was Buried. London: Dorling Kindersley Ltd., 1998. Print. “Rome Fiorelli.” Photograph. Ancient Rome. Mollet Learning Academy, 2012. Web. 14 Nov 2014. 

Article by Venice  
Artwork by Maia

Venice has been an ardent lover of anything connected to history since childhood, may these be novels, movies, or songs. 

Maia Sevilla loves chocolate cake, napping, and her dog, Fender, more than most things. While she dreams of being the perfect cross between an astronaut and a pastry chef, she is willing to let that go in order to be a fully functional 19-year-old Fine Arts student out to save the world.


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