Statistiche - Around Naples

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"...…And now high and far into the dawning skies broke the fragrant fire..."
by Jeff Matthews
As far as I know, no one has ever written a book or made any movies about the last days of Herculaneum. The line cited above is from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton's 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompei. It remains one of the most widely read books ever, and there have been at least three films based on it. Bulwer-Lytton pretty much left neighboring Herculaneum alone, which is just as well, since keen-eared readers will note that the cited line is not much better that the author's most famous line, the immortally bad, "It was a dark and stormy night." Yet, the remains of some 300 citizens of Herculaneum uncovered during the excavations of the city attest to the same dramatic reality of destruction in 79 a.d. by the same explosive eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that doomed Pompeii.

Indeed, Herculanium remains underknown and undervisited—which are excellent reasons to take a look at it. The town is also underexcavated, but there are projects underway to correct that situation, in so far as it is possible to carry out archaeological digs in the most densely populated area of Europe, precisely the area along the southern slope of the Volcano, where modern Ercolano sits—exactly on top of old Herculaneum.

The current plans are the result of a collaboration between the Packard Humanities Institute of Los Altos California, founded in 1987 "to create tools for basic research in the Humanities and to foster public interest in the history, literature, and music of the past" and the British School of Rome, a "…centre for research on the archaeology, history, and culture of Italy, and for contemporary art and architecture." The collaboration has existed since 2001 with the aim, in part, "… to arrest the decay that afflicts all parts of this site. The propping of collapsing structures with scaffolding, the consolidation of crumbling plaster surfaces and disintegrating mosaics …represent the vital first step in ensuring that the delicate ancient remains survive…[and]… to develop a conservation strategy to safeguard the long- term survival of the site and enhance its value to all its users." Herculaneum, they say, was founded by Hercules, who was one busy little camper in these parts as he returned from Spain after wrangling the Oxen of Geryon; numerous other bits and pieces along the Campanian coast are connected to him: the town of Torre del Greco, the little island of Rovigliano, etc. etc. Greek historian, Strabo, tells us that the city was originally Oscan, then Etruscan, and then Samnite before being gobbled up by the Romans. In any case, by the time of Augustus, it was thriving little walled city on a sheer cliff overlooking the sea. Like other places in the vicinity, Herculaneum was badly damaged in a great earthquake of 62 A.D. and was presumably getting back on its feet when real disaster struck a few years later.

The walls of the city enclosed an area of about 20 hectars (about 50 acres). The city was home to about 4,000 persons. Less than one-quarter of the original city has been excavated; the rest lies beneath the modern, densely populated town of Ercolano, and is likely to remain so buried forever. Excavations were begun in the 1730s as part of the general rediscovery of the classical history of the area, which included Pompeii, Oplontis and, farther afield, Paestum. Important work was done in the 20th century by the great Neapolitan archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri, the person who finally found the fabelled cave of the Sibyl in Cuma. (Hmmm-- "…finally found the fabelled cave…" / "…high and far into the dawning skies…" OK, it's a toss- up.)

Current work takes advantage of the fact that the city was buried and, thus, preserved under 50 feet of the original pyroclastic material that covered the town and solidified. As it is scraped away, much more detail is available to us than in Pompeii about, say, the upper floors of the original structures and the building techniques. The original docks of the city with their vaulted warehouses and boat storage facilities on the original beach at the base of the cliff may now be seen, for example. They now sit some 400 yards in from the sea, the result of new land added by the eruption as well as by natural changes in sea level. The few blocks of the excavated city in from the cliff contain other items of extreme interest: the house of the Corinthian atrium, the Taberna of Priapus, the House of the Deers, etc. etc. much of which is in a better state of preservation than found elsewhere in classical archaeology. The streets and a few of the buildings just look empty, but not particularly devastated—as if those living there had just stepped out for a while. Indeed, Shelley's lines about Pompeii,

"I stood within the City disinterred; And heard the autumnal leaves like light footfalls Of spirits passing through the streets..."

have an intimacy about them that one is more likely to sense in Herculaneum.