Pompeii is one of the most visited tourist sites in Italy, and for good reason. The once bustling port and vacation city was buried in the 79 A.D. under 20 feet of ash and rock when the nearby Mt. Vesuvius erupted. The city was frozen in time, unaltered over the centuries, sleeping under its ashy blanket. Some 1700 years later, humans rediscovered Pompeii and began the excavation, which continues today. Slowly, the sleeping beauty has been revealed.
The city itself feels like a giant work of art. It is a place where you can easily lose yourself in spite of being able to see all the way down the endless streets. The stony walls and uneven streets of Pompeii are both majestic and tranquil.
Glory and Ghostly Beauty
Visitors marvel at the beauty of the preserved art and frescoes, almost as vivid as the day they were painted. Some seem lost in the freeze-frame snapshot of life 2000 years ago, pondering the similarities and differences to their lives today. Or, French poet Théophile Gautier wrote:
[Only] two steps separate ancient life from modern life.
And everywhere there is the architecture. Some, like the homes of common folk, the many small taverns visited by sailors from the trading boats tied up along the river banks, and the small businesses providing the necessities of life, have a simple beauty all their own, rugged, utilitarian, yet beautifully constructed. Other buildings, such as the temples and the government buildings awe with their size and ornamentation.
The Forum as Magical Place
While heading for the Forum, stop at a corner, look down a street along the west side Forum. There, framed by walls and a striking lintel, are arches and columns, drawing you inward. Each archway creates yet another framed picture, full of the beautiful geometry of Pompeii. Off to your left is one of the countless silent fountains, its open mouth hinting at the abundance of water music that once pervaded the atmosphere. And at almost every turn, Vesuvius is there, rising above the city: pensive and blue, the occasional wisp of smoke issuing forth. Step into the Forum, once the throbbing heart and the economic, religious, and political center of Pompeii.
There, along its north side, stands the massive Temple of Jupiter. Beautifully fluted and tapering columns rise above a wide staircase. Though many of the twelve have lost most of their once dominating height, one column still rises improbably tall, standing proudly and conveying an air of defiance in the face of the destruction that silenced the city. And perhaps, if you listen closely, you may hear the murmur of voices from long ago – politicians and merchants, patricians and sailors, worshipping the deities in that magnificent space.
Art and Essence of Pompeii
If you had visited this site between May 2016 and January 2017, you would have found even more awe-inspiring and thought-provoking art within the city. The late Polish artist Igor Mitoraj had chosen specific locations for thirty of his mesmerizing sculptures. For nine months, mythological gods and heroes populated the streets and the squares of Pompeii. The are emerging like dreams from the ruins, confronting transience and fragility with a sense of inner strength.
In the Forum, in front of the Temple, was placed one of Mitoraj’s most striking sculptures, the Blue Icarus. Icarus lies on his side, eyes closed as if asleep. He seems at peace, with a serene expression that hints at secret dreams, perhaps of once more soaring close to the sun. And despite having fallen from the sky, he seems ready to take wing again.
Walking further on, there in front of the marble covered and ornate columned portal of the Building of Eumachia, patron priestess of launderers, lies a huge and broken face, looking skyward, as if its owner was struck down, like Pompeii, at the height of bloom, by that immense catastrophe. Yet, peace, acceptance and even a sense of hope permeates the expression on the sculpture. He is looking towards the gods, who in turn look down, perhaps also smiling, on the beauty of Pompeii.