Monday, May 10, 2010

Italian Journal, 2: Erculaneo

Saturday May 8: Herculaneum, we call it in English; I don't know why. Since Fran had been to Pompeii two or three times we decided to skip it and visit Herculaneum instead: she was interested at how different it seemed from Pompeii.

Erculaneo is quite below the level of the present town R________, a testament to the amount of detritus that's been piled on top of the ash and, perhaps, lava that buried it in the first place. It's a small city divided into insulae or large blocks containing a number of houses or shops of varying size, some of them rather grand villas, others clearly complexes of small crowded apartments or bedrooms, probably for the lower and working classes. My impression: excavated rather hastily in the 1930s for the most part, much of the plaster containing paintings broken away either for sale or for safekeeping; now being researched more carefully, much of the work apparently stalled, probably for lack of funds.

A very interesting site for what it says about city planning and architecture. The insulae gridded off in orderly rectangles divided by one-lane streets whose large paving-stones are perhapstwo feet below the level of the sidewalks, the streets undoubtedly functioning also as drainage. Some houses — that of Argos, for example — quite palatial by my standards, with large salons, and pluvia, nicely proportioned cloister-like gardens, though sleeping rooms still rather small.

A surprising amount of wood still in place here and there — screens, lintels, door-frames; blackened by the catastrophe but preserved somehow from decay. Most remaining décor geometrical motifs high on walls or on ceilings. A number of rooms clearly have been remodeled; marble tile is laid on earlier opus sextile (if that's what it's called); thin layers of fresco'd plaster laid on top of earlier similar decoration.

The plaster covering the stone, brick, or rubble walls is generally a couple of inches thick; on it, the fesco coat is perhaps a quarter-inch thick; often you see incised lines in the thick plaster, showing the finish-plasterer where to lay in the final colors and linear design elements.

The palestra or gymnasium clearly a very important element; as in our time and country, athletics and the gym have replaced worship and the church as the main focus of social life, at least architecturally. But what you see of the palestra suggests that by 79 BC city planning and construction had entered a historicist postmodern sort of era: the columns are not stone, but brick and tile covered with plaster treated to imitate Greek stone columns. As populations grew and inferior classes emulated those at the top, cheap construction (and fast construction) had to supplant the slower techniques and rarer materials. What had been Form was now Style.

Too, the city grew vertically; residences piled atop residences, those below perhaps being moved into by poorer citizens, or used to house animals, or as storage. I thought of the huge "basement" under Arles, and of the remains of a many-storied apartment complex alongside the Palatine. (An American is reminded, too, of such cliff dwellings as those at Mesa Verde.)

The entire Herculaneum site seems low-keyed and laid-back. There's a good-sized undergound parking garage; above and nearby, a ticket office with a few leaflets. There is no shop: instead, an open-air market with three or four booths selling guidebooks in many languages, cheap replicas, caps and T-shirts and the like; and a café offering unappealing fast food. A few men (I saw no women) stood near the entrance offering guide service, and there's a booth providing electronic guides. We had lunch in a curious restaurant next to the parking area: you go up a narrow, steep, spiral staircase to a dining room tented on the roof of a one-story building containing kitchen, reception and restrooms. The food was okay: I had a sort of pain bagnat; others had pizza, or pasta. And then onward to Amalfi…

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