Postcard from Herculaneum, Italy: Hot volcanic ash buried town for centuries

View of Mount Vesuvius from Vomero neighborhood in Naples

Although a gorgeous backdrop on the Sea of Naples, Mount Vesuvius is not sleeping. The only active volcano on the mainland of Europe erupted as recently as 1944, showering ash and rocks upon the Allied forces establishing an airbase nearby.

But the volcano is most known for its spectacular explosion in the year 79, an event reputed to have killed as many as 16,000 citizens of the Roman Empire.

From “Visiting Pompeii” on World Archaeology:

At peak intensity, the eruptive column reached a height of 30km (about 18 miles) or more as the mountain ejected 150,000 tons of material per second…. The air-fall of ash, pumice and occasional rock fragments, accumulating at about 15cm an hour, eventually covered Pompeii to a depth of almost 3m (close to 10 feet)….

The mountain had not finished its work, however, and only now, in the final six hours or so of the eruption, did it became truly lethal….

“A fearful black cloud,” Pliny reports, “was rent by forked and quivering bursts of flame, and parted to reveal great tongues of fire, like flashes of lightning magnified in size. …Soon afterwards the cloud sank to earth and covered the sea ….”

It took perhaps five or six minutes to reach Pompeii from the lip of the crater: a dense, rolling, ground-hugging mass of gas, ash and rock (the pyroclastic flow), preceded a few seconds in front by a scorching blast like that from a flamethrower…. At its hottest, where temperatures reached anything from 400 ° to 800 ° C, the ‘black cloud’ carbonized wooden timbers, doors and shutters, and killed those it struck instantly, as brains boiled and skulls exploded in the flash. Others, where the heat was less, were asphyxiated as they breathed in hot gas and incandescent ash….

In the 24 hours plus that the eruption had lasted, it is estimated that Vesuvius had unleashed thermal energy 100,000 times greater than that of the atomic explosion at Hiroshima.

Strangely, the destruction of Pompeii and other towns around the base of the volcano preserved the ruins for thousands of year.  Ancient cities frozen in time.

I was fortunate to have visited Pompeii in college, but much has been uncovered, restored and opened to public since then.

The flaw is that the 163-acre archaeological park is no secret. The number of tourists swarming through the treasured ruins is creeping toward 4-million annually. Photographs such as the lead one for an October story in the New York Times, “Can a Restored Pompeii Be Saved from ‘Clambering’ Tourists?,” scared us away. Paige McClanahan writes that nearly 450,000 people overwhelmed Pompeii in the month of July.

In contrast, only about 300,000 tourists visit Herculaneum a year. So instead, we opted for the much smaller town, a little closer to Naples, not as spectacular but not over-crowded.

The first official explorations at Herculaneum were begun in 1738, yet only a small portion of the once-wealthy port town has been excavated. While the archaeological zone is modest in size compared to Pompeii, the affluence of its residents is evidenced by abundant use of marble throughout.

For centuries, it was believed that almost the entire population of the town had been evacuated by sea before the worst of the eruption. But in the 1980s, digs uncovered skeletal remains of hundreds, huddled together under the arcades of the then-seaside boat houses, buried under ash while waiting ships that failed to save them.

We left them unmolested, as the hoards of tourists in Pompeii left us unmolested to explore Herculaneum at our own pace in peace.

Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Savior or pillager of ancient relics?

Houses have their own countenance. They have souls. They have something indefinable, born of an idea or feeling. Now, renovated and embellished, it is the short compendium into which my whole life has been condensed. It is the shrine in which I have conserved the revered treasures of my grandparents and the art treasures accumulated during a lifetime.

Regla Manjon Mergelina, Countess of Lebrija (1851-1938)

And the countess did accumulate treasures.

To accommodate some of her sizable acquisitions, the countess purchased a 16th-century palace and began remodeling it in 1901 in the sumptuous Mudejar-Renaissance style originally made popular by the Casa de Pilatos. Entire walls of colorful 16th-century azulejos were harvested from a former convent.

Oh, but what to do about flooring?

Fond of archaeology, the countess underwrote digs outside of nearby Santiponce, the site of the ancient Roman city of Italica. This enabled her to “rescue” numerous long-neglected mosaic floors and return them to their former domestic role in her private home.

Much like Casa de Pilatos established a trend for Mudejar-Renaissance in Sevilliano palaces, the countess’ appetite for authentic Roman mosaic flooring spread to others. Floors from ruins throughout Spain began to disappear into private homes.

Spain was slow to protect the integrity of its antiquities and did not make Italica a national monument until 1912. Perhaps, if private Spaniards had not removed many of the mosaics and statues, they all might have ended up in museums in France or England. The acquisitive aristocratic homeowners in the early 1900s did keep the ancient artifacts in Spain.

The mosaics in Casa Lebrija also now can be seen by the public. The family owning the home opened it as a private museum in 1999. Several other house museums in Seville also feature Roman mosaics.

The flooring actually appears more appropriate in these domestic settings than in the more sterile surroundings of Seville’s Archaeological Museum. And they are in better repair than those remaining at Italica, still exposed to the elements. Now they are returned to public view, it is possible their removal by private caretakers ended up being a positive thing for Spain.

Similar to numerous house museums, portions of the second floor where the family still resides are open for guided tours for an additional fee. No photos are allowed, but the small price of admission is well worth the opportunity to view what originally was the “winter” portion of Palacio de Lebrija. In addition the distinctive architecture and rich furnishings, a few paintings by the elder Brueghel, Van Dyck and numerous Spanish painters are displayed.

And the countess might indeed have instilled a soothing soul in her palatial surroundings. We briefly saw the current matriarch serving as caretaker of the collection. Her son a step behind, she was climbing up the stairs to her quarters unassisted. She was approaching the eve of her 100th birthday.

Postcard from Sevilla, Spain: Roman remains of Italica

Chosen for its prime location as a port and fort on the Guadalquivir River, the site of the older settlement of Turdetani was dedicated for veterans of the Second Punic War (218-201 BCE) by the Roman Emperor as a reward for their service in defeating Hannibal (247-180? BCE). The archeological remains of the new settlement, Italica, are found in the quiet town of Santiponce, only about six miles outside of Sevilla.

Italica was the birthplace of both the expansionist Roman emperor Trajan (53-117) (replica of original statue above) and his successor, Hadrian (76-138). Hadrian’s interests were not directed as much toward increasing the size of the Roman empire as in unifying it and making its borders defensible. His hometown benefitted from his keen interest and investments in outlying posts.

The walls erected around Italica enclosed more than 120 acres of an urbanized area laid out in a grid. Although the population never rose above 10,000 or so, the enormous amphitheatre seated up to 25,000 spectators. The “games,” generally played by enslaved gladiators, attracted visitors from far and wide, including the larger Roman neighboring city of Hispalis, or Sevilla.

While few walls of individual houses remain, some mosaic floors of the homes of the wealthy are still on site. Some mosaics have been taken to the Sevilla Archaeological Museum, but many were removed before Italica belatedly was protected as a National Monument in 1912. The central part of most mosaics made their way into the homes of Sevilla’s aristocrats. At least many in private hands were secured and well-preserved. They can be seen in several homes now open to the public as museums (photos later).

Lacking the favored patronage of an emperor, the fate of the prosperous city was dealt a death-blow by the shifting course of the Guadalquivir River. By the third century the once-vital port was left high and dry – abandoned.