My Last Days of Pompeii
I am a cryer. I cry when I watch a sad film, or when I read a sad book. It is my cross to bear. When I went to a midnight screening of Avengers: Endgame I cried no less than eight times, I kid you not. The book that made me cry the most in recent times is The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) by Baron Bulwer-Lytton. To be totally honest, it isn’t really an inviting book: its prose is extremely heavy, its exclamations frequent, and it features so many character names that it’s hard to keep track. Honestly, getting past the first hundred pages is always a challenge. However, once past that point, it is impossible to put down. All its episodes of love, grief, pain, and malice might seem a bit clichéed, but the narrative is held together by the knowledge that Vesuvius’s eruption is gradually drawing near: who will perish? Who will be saved? Will anyone be saved, or will it all be gone in a matter of a few pages? The ending is inevitable.
The Last Days of Pompeii is the kind of book that does not leave you once it is over. In the end, I cried for the tragedy of Pompeii. Then I started thinking about Pompeii today, about its magnificently preserved site and the joy it must give to its visitors.
Two years ago, when I went back home to Italy for the holidays, I decided I wanted to see Pompeii for myself; I wanted to see the place that had inspired Baron Bulwer-Lytton and many others.
I am not alone in my desire. Upon arriving in Pompeii, you can already hear ten different languages being spoken in the entry queue alone. In the front, there’s the American enthusiast who has come all the way from Utah and has learnt Italian just for this trip; then, there are the lovely Taiwanese parents, telling stories of Romans and volcanoes to their three small children – but not one-year-old Kevin, who apparently likes his sleep better than anything else; some Italian teenagers are complaining loudly but I could bet they are, in fact, thrilled to be there; the large group of Japanese tourists arrives well-rested and exuberant, despite the fact that they have been traveling and walking around Italy for more than a week; a small Neapolitan boy entertains an elderly lady with a kind smile, whom he has just discovered comes from London, with a recitation of the English “Alphabet Poem” he has learned in school. I stand in the middle of this diverse multitude and cannot help but think that a glorious sight already stands in front of me. It makes me smile and I realise that, two thousand years ago, there must have been a similar polyglot gathering in this same spot.
When you finally make it through the entrance, the first buildings to welcome you are the theatres, both small and grand. Laughter, clapping, and cheering still echo through them today (though now, from the tourists), as they probably did two thousand years ago. I cannot help but think that this scene exemplifies the irresistible charm of Pompeii: with its thousands of visitors every day, the city is as much alive today as it must have been before the eruption, even if in a different way. The different lives and cultures of these people – who come from all over the world and who, for one day, cohabit in Pompeii – are reflected in the stories the city itself narrates. The Temple of Isis still stands, with the bust of the Egyptian goddess herself miraculously intact, next to the Ionian columns of the Temples of Jove and of Apollo; nearby are the remains of a small – and probably secretive – Christian Church. These structures, representing the different religions that were practiced in Pompeii, perfectly mirror the same diversity that still surrounds you in the city today. Pompeii brings people together peacefully.
Visiting, I quickly discover that the most visited site in Pompeii is the Lupanare, the brothel. Or, rather, it is one of the many brothels that we know existed in Pompeii. However, only one still stands. Walking down the main road, you spot an unusual stone. You would probably stand there, just like I did, with your head inclined to the side, looking at it intensely, wondering if it really is a carved phallus you are seeing or if you have been binge-watching too many episodes of Game of Thrones. Thankfully, a tour guide points it out to the members of her group and you discover that that stone is indeed shaped like a phallus and that it indicates the quickest way to the closest lupanare. The queue in front of it is as long as the one at the entrance of the city itself, giving you plenty of time to think about why such an edifice holds such a strong attraction to so many people while you stand immobile for the longest half hour of your life, desperately trying not to think of the sunburn you are getting . If you do decide to go to Pompeii, bring sunscreen with you (don’t be like me; be smart).
Once inside the Lupanare, you are surrounded by some of the tiniest rooms you have ever seen, and the beds within are made of stone. Comfort must not have been a priority for the customers. On top of every door are the famous erotic frescoes, whose purpose was not simply decorative. Pompeii was a rich mercantile city, with a lively harbour. Men from every province of the Roman Empire would arrive and seek solace; many would not even speak Latin, and the illustrations that are still visible today indicated the kind of service to be expected from each room. A man did not even need to speak, but could just point out the room he wished to enter. Prostitution was not only legal in Pompeii, it flourished; male prostitutes were as frequently requested, by both women and men, as the female prostitutes.
The famous graffiti are not easily spotted: because the restorations funded by the European Union are still in progress, many areas are closed to the public. However, if you do spot a couple graffiti, like I did, be ready for a challenge. Mostly, they appear so high on the walls that you have to crane your neck. One of them was even mirror-written – you know, like Leonardo da Vinci was known to do. They are protected by transparent barriers that reflect the sun and makes reading even more difficult. So, that was not fun. After studying Latin for years, I wish that I could have used the knowledge in such an appropriate setting. I was not able to spot my favourite marking, but I would still like to share it. Among the overtly lewd inscriptions, a poetic verse stands out that represents the Pompeiians’ view on love and loving:
Quisquis amat valeat pereat qui nescit amare bis tanto pereat quisquis amare vetat
“Those who love, may they prosper; / those who do not know how to love, / may they perish; / and may they perish twice as much, those who forbid love.” (Author’s translation)
The sentiment behind these words is clearly one that belongs to a population unashamed of its sexual life. Even more than that, it reveals a liberal mentality and, at the same time, an uncompromising demand for acceptance. It is fascinating; I do not find it at all odd that the lupanare is the most sought-after site. We all want to peek behind the curtains. We watch period dramas because we are obsessed with knowing what the ‘real life’ of the past was like. We read about battles and epic deeds from the biased and partial accounts that form our history. In the end, we desperately search our past for proof that a common human nature exists, that we are not so different despite our differences in costumes.
And, in Pompeii more than in any other place, it is possible to feel this sense of humanity that transcends time.
The last stop when visiting the city is the Forum. Here, the view is unobstructed and you get to see how near Mount Vesuvius truly is. Everyone who passes through the square stops and stares at it, even if only for a moment. This is where the tragedy is most keenly felt. The higher buildings are all gone, but many columns still stand and seem to pierce the sky. A cloudy afternoon takes the place of a sunny morning: a real-life case of objective correlative, if ever I saw one. I imagine Pliny, the author renowned for walking towards the volcano in the middle of its explosion, climbing through the cloud of lapilli, desperate for knowledge. On the right, where the granary used to stand, there are the casts of those people petrified in the moment of death behind a glass. One of them has his mouth wide open in a never-ending silent scream of agony.
But life is stronger in Pompeii. People eat, drink, and take photos; some even paint. None of it is disrespectful or tasteless. After all, everyone is here to give homage to one of the most astonishing places on earth. There is awe and reverence, everywhere you turn. The preserved city is a photograph of the past, a moment’s monument. Hope is stronger in Pompeii. Buried and forgotten for centuries, it is once again alive: the miraculous survivor that stands against all odds.
Rory Mara is Beauty Editor at The Attic of Eighth. She loves the ballet, books, beheadings, and alliteration.