Falling in Love with Italy: Assisi & Pompeii

Our destination today is Pompeii and Assisi. We spent the morning touring the excavations of Pompeii, the perfectly preserved Roman town which was engulfed by Mount Vesuvius’ eruption. We will then proceed thereafter to Assisi in the region of Perugia, a town that has changed little since the time of St. Francis, who was born here in 1182.

assisi pompeii

Tip: Click on the links of the notable sights to enjoy a photo sphere in Google maps, a 360-degree panorama.

Pompeii

The city of Pompeii had been built atop ancient lava flows. Despite this, the people had forgotten the danger. Despite earthquakes preceding the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, the people were caught unawares. Most died from the pyroclastic heat and gases that preceded the explosion. The eruption of 79 AD buried the city in 20+ feet of ash and pumice.

The Roman emperor sent help, but upon finding the entire area buried, they returned. We know of the eruption mostly from two letters written by a boy who had witnessed the catastrophe from across the Gulf of Naples. He described his observations and state the eruption began about 1 pm, the clouds shaped like the umbrella pine tree or a mushroom.

The ruins were rediscovered 267 years ago. Presently, one third of the city remains buried. Excavations have since stopped – the focus now on restoration. At its peak, an estimated 20,000 people lived in Pompeii. pompeii us

It was fascinating to walk about the excavated and restored ruins. It provided us with a glimpse of what life was like in ancient Rome. Streets lined with shops and restaurants, houses, public meeting places (including a gymnasium with spas and massage areas, two orchestras, a basilica, and a training center for gladiators). Archeologists determined the function of each structure by artifacts found within the walls – doctors instruments, breads, weapons, as well as frescoes that adorned the walls.

pompeii homeAs a port city, many foreign sailors would arrive in Pompeii. To aide those who didn’t seek the language, relief images were carved into the rock as road signs. Jeffrey of course found it very humorous that a phallic symbol indicated the direction to the brothels. You can imagine his laughter when at the kiosks surrounding the ruins, vendors had a great variety of kitschy souvenirs featuring these symbols.

Read more about Pompeii in Jeffrey’s essay, Pompeii Rises from the Ashes.

Assisi

After a few hours in Pompeii, we were back on the road continuing to Assisi. Along the way, Monte Cassino was pointed out us – visible from our coach from distance – the location of a 5 month battle at the end of WW2.

St. Francis of Assisi was born to a wealthy merchant, growing up in a life of comfort. He served for a time as a soldier and had been taken prisoner in Perugia. It was during this time that he began his conversion.assisi duomo

Upon his return home, he would travel to Rome on behalf of his father but began to give away his goods and profits to those in need. He eventually dedicated his life to the church, much to the anger of his father. He later founded the Order of the Friar’s Minors (Franciscan Order). he died on 3rd October 1226 and was canonized just two years later.

For a fascinating glimpse into the life of St. Francis, consider Scott O’Dell’s book The Road to Damietta.

The basilica in Assisi was built in his honor and is actually two distinct basilicas. The lower one (built first) featuring frescos of the life of Jesus. The upper basilica features 28 frescos depicting the life and work of St. Francis painted by Thomas of Celano and Bonaventura between 1297-1300.

assisi window

We had only a couple of hours in Assisi. I loved the historic, medieval feel of the city. As we wandered about the shops, I was delighted to find the pendant I had first seen at the Vatican museums, Rosoni by Landolfo which are inspired by the elaborately carved windows of the Basilica Papale di San Francesco.

As we arrived at our meeting place at the bottom of the hill, I realized that my mother-in-law would also like one of the pendants (she had given us money to spend on her behalf). I had only 15 minutes before our coach was to depart. Though I knew they wouldn’t leave without me, I didn’t want to delay our departure and worry our guide, Giuseppe. We had already experienced this frustration twice before due to another party in our group. I thereby raced up the hill, arriving out of breath, able to indicate my desire only by pointing and labored words.

assisi kids

Our accommodations at the Casa Leonori were spartan owing to the humbleness of the Franciscans. The kids said, “Our towels are like crepe paper and our bed like cardboard on box springs.” I actually appreciated it for the experience – it was just one night after all.

Dinner was very similar to the night before. I particularly began to get frustrated with the quality of food provided. Admittedly I am a foodie and tasting authentic regional dishes are a big part of what I love about traveling. You know there is a problem when we are in Italy and my 10 year old son says to me, “Mom, you make better pasta than this.” I am not fond of group travel – but again, I’ll save that diatribe for a future post.

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This post is part of a five-post series, The Italian Scene: Falling in Love with Italy.  Join me tomorrow as our journey continues north to Venice & Burano.

Hopscotch-August2016My post is one of many hopscotch link-ups. Hop over and see what others are sharing.

Pompeii Rises from the Ashes

pompeii columnsOn August 25, AD 79 the great city of Pompeii laid at the feet of Mount Vesuvius. It began with a light rumble that came upon the city, knocking off ceiling tiles and tipping jars from shelves. No one knew that the rumble was a sign that Mount Vesuvius would erupt. People went about their day. Adults were shopping in the forums. Children were playing in the courtyards.

Out of the 20,000 citizens who lived in Pompeii, 2,000 were slaves. Most Pompeiians were craftsmen or traders providing for themselves or their masters.

The people of Pompeii worshiped many gods and goddesses.They prayed for them in a public temple or a private shrine in their homes.

Most of the shopping and restaurants were located in a place called “The Forum”. Here the people enjoyed visiting with others as they went about their day.

Their diet consisted of bread, lamb, fish, and fruits including peaches, apples, pears, and grapes. They liked to drink goat milk and wine.  The people consumed grains, fruits, nuts, olives, lentils, local fish, and chicken eggs. Only the rich enjoyed more expensive meat and salted fish.

pompeii bathsIn their free time, they enjoyed going to the public bath. There were separate quarters for men and women. Here, they could bathe in the hot waters, get a massage, and hear the latest gossip. In the central courtyard was a large exercise field.

Around 9:00 a.m., there was a small explosion of tiny ash particles that sprinkled the city. The ground continued to rumble. Gradually the larger chunks of pumice and rock began to fall on Pompeii.

At 1:00 p.m., an enormous cloud made of ash, pumus, and rock apeared over the top of Mount Vesuvius. Pliny the younger watched from across the water and in a letter to Tacitus later wrote, “The cloud was shaped like an umbrella pine, with a long trunk that branched at the top. Soon, ashes were falling; hot and dense. Next came pumice stones, black and scorched by fire.”

Within thirty minutes the cloud was over ten miles high heading straight for Pompeii. The cloud was so dark it blocked out the sun. According to Pliny, “Soon the courtyards … filled with ash. The buildings swayed with heavy tremors. The sky turned blacker than night. Then flames and sulphur fumes sent everyone into flight.”

At 5:30 p.m., pumus and rock two inches in diameter began to fall on Pompeii. By 8:00 p.m. most all buildings had burned down or were buired by ash. By 12:00 a.m, the first story of the buildings were blocked by ash.

Two hours later, the second phase begins – six pyroclastic surges of hot gas and ash that blew down the mountain. Each surge was larger and spread farther than the one that preceded. The surges ranged in speed from 60 -180 mph. In the end, over 18,000 people died.

pompeii tragedyFor over 1,500 years, people had forgotten about Pompeii. The ash that had buried the city provided good soil for farming olive trees and grapevines. Periodically, farmers and canal workers would uncover statues, beautiful marble, and brick walls.

In 1863 archeaologists found cavities which they poured plaster into to make a cast. This revealed the people had been caught by surprise and their bodies were buried in the ash and debris. Skeletons were also found.

Scientists discovered that “a person who died during the surge of hot gas and ash after dawn on the second day of the eruption was more likely to create a cavity in the volcanic material than someone who had died the first day during the pumice fall.” (Deem 2005) Soon the casts were put on display for all who visited.

Since then, about 60% of Pompeii has now been excavated. Though excavations have now stopped, the focus today is on restoration and perservation. Today there are more than two million people who come to visit the ruins each year.

Mount Vesuvius is still an active volcano. Scientists are monitoring the activity to help warn the people who live in the vicinity. If the mountain were to awake, the hope is that the people could be evacuated in time.

Bibliography

  • Caseli, Giovanni. In Search of Pompeii: Uncovering a buried Roman city. New York: Peter Bedrick Books. 1996.
  • Damon, Cynthia (translated). Pliny Letter 2.16. http://faculty.cua.edu/pennington/pompeii/PlinyLetters.htm
  • Deem, James M. Bodies from the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company. 2005.
  • Osborne, Mary, Pope. Pompeii Lost and Found. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. 2006.