“The tree of man was never quiet / First twas the Roman, now ‘tis eye.” It was with these words of Houman, inscribed in gleaming letters across the forefront of our mind that we made our way down to ancient city.
We were greeted at the gate by a pack of friendly, stray canines. I’ve meditated long on the fortune of finding in this FSP a group of friends not even one of whom is a dud. It would have been perfectly reasonable to expect a full third of my classmates would have belonged to that caliber of people who, while not evil, didn’t quite jive with my own preferences of personhood. How my luck is compounded then, that every last one of the lot has proved pleasant and impressive to the top of every criterion. Yet still, as these dogs remind me, such approval is narcissitically-rooted. If I were a dog, it wouldn’t matter a shred what sort of person any one of us was; it wouldn’t be a matter of observation, evaluation, and approval. I would just love without boundary.
Most of the day was occupied with a tour of Roman houses. This tour wound up lucky in improbably many ways. Just as at the Roman forums we visited, we were rained on—hard. But, cloistered in the atrium of a nearby domus, we had the rare opportunity to witness an impluvium / compluvium system in action. The rain poured in from four directions through a hole in the roof into a basin at the center of the house’s intitial foyer. The air was chill but the feeling in the space was singularly excited and warm.
Second, we chanced to meet a guard by the name of Umberto, one of those rare, uncorrupted and generous spirited the twenty-first century. He went out of his way to let us into several extra houses of astounding architectural composition. For those who grew up with the Cambridge Latin course textbooks, the pleasure of stepping inside the house of Caecilius Iucundus (on whose life the series was based) was immeasurable.
There is no visit to Pompeii that is completed without at least a glance at the plaster molds of bodies of citizens who perished in the eruption of Vesuvius, that mountain that leans over the site in all its terrific, perennial beauty.
It was hard to see the bodies. It requires some long-nurtured scabbing of our tenderest hearts to looking upon the sprawling forms of plaster and not shudder, head to toe. In his Moral Epistles, Seneca writes without cease of how death is always inches before us, hovering like an enveloping ghost. For hundreds of days out of the year, this is a truth all too easy to ignore. If you don’t look at the casts, framed in apathetic glass, and not see yourself somewhere in there together with them, you must revisit Housman’s line.
All of Pompeii is one enormous plaster cast of itself. It is a metaphor for eternity and death and the house of metaphors for eternity and death.
Photos (from the amazing Jin):
Kathleen takes a stroll through the gardens.
A father-daughter moment.
Liz pokes around in the furnace of the Central Baths.
“Is that a hypocaust?”