Italy 17: Naples and Pompeii


May 20, 2019


Unlike most of the other cities we visited in Italy, no one had recommended Naples as a “must see” destination. In fact, the people we knew who had been there told us to keep our valuables close to us and our wits about us. Naples is, after all, a port city and major port cities offer anonymity and cover for those with less than the most selfless of agendas. Naples regularly appears at or near the top of Italian cities where crime (specifically robbery) is common.

Such statistics and personal cautions only reinforced the darker expectations I’d had of Naples before we went there. My primary sources were two powerful fiction writers whose works I’ve devoured within the past few years: Curzio Malaparte, by turns a Nazi and a communist and author of The Skin, which depicts war-crushed Naples during the American “invasion” (1943-45) with what is probably the cruelest and most derisive humour I have ever read, and Elena Ferrante’s four Neapolitan novels concerning two girls who grew up after the second war in what she describes as a violent and restrictive city.

The Neapolitan municipal region is home to more than three million people, which makes it (with Rome and Milan) one of three highest-ranking cities in Italy both in terms of population and economically, and it is the most densely populated. The port is home to Allied Joint Force Command Naples, an important NATO presence. Probably due to its strategic location, it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Europe (since 9th century B.C.!)

We did not spend much time in Naples. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived from Rome and we still wanted to get to Pompeii before the entrance to the park closed at 6. However, we did drive through the city rather than taking one of the bypass routes, and that allow me to take enough photos to reinforce my pre-judgement of what Naples was going to look like. I really did feel like we were driving through the setting of a Ferrante novel rather than a Dean Martin song.

But then, as we left the city and began the drive past Mount Vesuvius up to Pompeii, I looked back and saw a spectacle I could not have imagined. What a beautiful city!

Pompeii (Archeological Park of)

There are advantages to travelling in the off season and of arriving at world heritage sites at close-to-closing time. This juxtaposition of photos illustrates one of them (We were there in May of 2019. The New York Times article says that 450,000 visitors toured the site in July of 2019.):

There are also disadvantages to such timing. In the case of Pompeii (which in Italian is “Pompei” with one “i”; “Pompei” is also the name of the nearby town), the lack of time to explore the site was the primary disadvantage of arriving at the hour that we did. A full day would have offered adequate opportunity to properly explore the park, and would also have allowed a visit to the Antiquarium Visitor Centre. I recommend no less to friends and relatives (!) who may be visiting there in future.

But there was no way to prepare myself for the feeling that came over me when I stepped into the Santuario di Apollo, where I was almost physically jarred by the realization that real people had lived and died (and had eaten, and prayed, and bathed) in this very spot, and that some areas of the site had probably looked very much the same way in 79 AD as they do today.

We had seen the 2015 Royal Ontario Museum exhibition In the Shadow of the Volcano, and almost every school kid has heard the story of what happened to the citizens of Pompeii 2000 years ago and about the city’s subsequent excavation (which began in 1748). So it’s not as though I didn’t know where we were going and what we were likely to see.

The full awareness of this truth prompted tears and added a few new screw-turns of conviction to my evolving awareness of my world: the domination of Earth by Sapiens is just a phase, and a brief one at that. Our individual lifespans are of no more importance than is the arc described by a speck of lint we have removed from our skirt or trousers and flicked off a fingernail in irritation. I don’t find this awareness sad or depressing. It’s just a poignancy-inducing reality.

For a sense of the atmosphere, the awareness of lives lived, that is evoked by a visit to Pompeii, along with an eloquent description of the problems that have plagued and continue to plague the site (which have included looting, defacement, flooding, scandal, earthquakes, overuse, and even a bombing by the Allies), I recommend the New York Times article pictured above. The author, Paige McClanahan, weaves together historic and climatic details to imagine how it must have been to live in one of the restored homes: “The warm sea breeze would have blended the dry scent of cypress and bay leaves with the stench of rubbish and excrement from the street, and the gurgle of water in the baths would have been occasionally drowned out by cries from the crowd in the 20,000-seat amphitheater nearby.”

On top of being a fascinating place to visit, and one of great historic importance, Pompeii is also a situated in a magnificent location. No wonder its residents were reluctant to leave the day the mountain erupted.

6 responses to “Italy 17: Naples and Pompeii

  1. Daniel K. Riskin

    Nice. Hopefully Pompeii will still be worth it, despite the July crowds.


  2. wonderful description beautiful photos, i feel like i was there too!

  3. What a thoughtful and beautifully written description of the actual Pompei, the city which once was, and of the feelings which are evoked walking through the site.You are right- we humans are just temporarily passing through.
    And all the wars, to accumulate the riches and gain he power are so immoral and useless. Thank you for prompting me to visit it again.

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