open country

Vesuvius makes a serene shape in a dark faded blue as it looks over the Bay of Naples, the ancient settlements that it murdered with its violent temper, and the modern towns edged with cliffs and harbours.

From the entertainment complex in the southern end of Pompeii my brother Simon and I walked north-west up the Via Stabiana passed the House of the Lovers. I did not notice it; there was nothing intriguing to make us look in there. Perhaps it was shut, the graffito in the ambulacrum (passage for walking) of the peristyle hidden from view – “Lovers, like bees, make life as sweet as honey”.

Pompeii (picture top of page) and the midday sun can smudge the powers of concentration. Even the exquisite wall paintings begin to swim in your mind until one house rolls into the next, the streets are only distinguishable by their varying widths and without a map we would have been lost.

I choose to turn right into Quadrivio di Olconio, a street which houses the Fullonica of Stephanus – basically a laundry which was excavated in 1911. The large wooden doors at its entrance are heavily charred and now encased in glass as they stand in their original place. There is something about the presence of these that tugs at those thoughts omnipresent and deeply pervasive following you into each building – what was it like to die in Pompeii under Vesuvius’ shower of destruction?

The archaeologists noted that the double wooden door was closed from the outside with a large chain, but the single door was open because the hinge had broken. In the office, behind a skeleton was discovered with a pot of money in gold, silver and bronze; a now futile hoard.

Urine was used, just as it was in Britain’s mills, to finish off woven cloth. Passersby were encouraged to urinate in pots placed at the door. Strangely the fullatores were taxed for using urine in this manner. In Britain people were paid for collecting urine in piss-pots.

From the laundry we continued along to the Via Dell’ Abbondanza only to discover that the House of Venus was closed off. So we turned right down a street with no name to enter the unusually open grounds by the Amphitheatre and the Large Palaestra.

Earth was dug out of the centre to support steps, meaning that the arena is lower than the surrounding ground level. Built in 80BC it is considered to be the oldest known amphitheatre. Like most Roman theatres there would have been a velarium (large canopy) to protect the spectators from the sun; it would most probably have been made of linen.

I watched my brother in silhouette walk out of the south-western corridor heading back towards the arch of sunlight. He was not going to go into this huge arena but he did because I was going in regardless.

To return to the densely populated north area of Pompeii, we chose to walk the unusual street that housed the Porta Di Nocera and the Porta Stabia. Outside the city gates, but still protected by a wall, is Pompeii’s necropolis – a strange collection of mausoleums and tabernacles. Many of the statues are well preserved, making this home of the dead almost more alive than the domestic quarters.

From this point we visited some of Pompeii’s most famous buildings – the exquisite central baths with their elaborate vaulted ceilings, the small brothel with strangely elegant wall paintings of couples having intercourse, and the House of the Faun with its array of mosaic flooring and large peristyle containing 28 columns. Now early afternoon, these buildings were overcrowded and there was neither time nor space to enjoy the artistry within.

Lastly, we went in search of the houses of the small and large fountains – delicate but colourful mosaic creations that I have carried with me in my mind’s eye since my teenage years.

They were thick with dust and closed off, we could only look through iron gates at their faded beauty. I looked at Vesuvius as I left, high and arrogant in the hot blue sky.