Resorts Of Ruin

Thousands Of Years After The Huge Eruption Of Mount Vesuvius, The Seaside Villages Of Pompeii, Herculaneum And Stabiae Are Still Being Discovered By Visitors To The Coast Of Italy

April 08, 2007|By Ellen Uzelac | Ellen Uzelac,Special to the Sun

When Mount Vesuvius violently erupted in 79 A.D., burying thousands of people under its volcanic debris, a cosmopolitan society vanished. Just like that -- gone.

Pompeii. Herculaneum. Stabiae.

Now, nearly 2,000 years after one of history's most storied natural disasters, Pompeii has re-emerged as a cultural zeitgeist. Filmmaker Roman Polanski will begin shooting the movie Pompeii, based on Robert Harris' best-selling thriller of the same name, in Italy this summer. A year ago, Smithsonian magazine weighed in with a cover story on the ancient city, paying homage to the remarkable traveling exhibition, Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption. The exhibition is in Beijing. It will return to the United States in the fall.

Meanwhile, the Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center in Mobile, Ala., has curated its own exhibit, A Day in Pompeii, which contains artifacts that have never left Italy until now.

"It's a compelling story because it's a human story," says Mike Sullivan, the Exploreum's executive director. "Archaeologically, it's an incredible snapshot." After it closes in June, the exhibit will travel to science museums in St. Paul, Minn.; Charlotte, N.C.; and San Diego.

During three visits to Italy in the past year, my husband and I got hooked on the incredible tale that Pliny the Younger, a witness to the Aug. 24 eruption, described in a letter as "a night blacker and thicker than any nights we have known."

Pompeii, just eight miles from Vesuvius, is the most familiar casualty of the violent eruption. But Herculaneum and Stabiae, two seaside resorts, were also buried. The University of Maryland is a co-sponsor of Restoring Ancient Stabiae, an effort by Italian and U.S. preservationists to transform the Roman seaside villas of Stabiae, still being excavated, into Europe's most innovative archaeological park.

Standing sentry over the Sorrentine Peninsula today, as it did in 79 A.D., is Mount Vesuvius. Rising 4,200 feet high, this complex volcano overlooks the Bay of Naples. Nearby are the cities of Sorrento and Naples and, just off the coast, the island of Capri. When it erupted, Pliny the Younger described a 20-mile-long cloud of superheated gas, ash and rock that rolled down the mountain, destroying everything in its path. At the time, Vesuvius was just a lovely green mountain, known for its vineyards and wild boars. No one suspected the dangers it held.

When we climbed to the summit in January, Vesuvio, as it's called in Italy, was covered in dense fog. It's hard not to have a healthy respect for the volcano, and it's impossible not to wonder when Vesuvius will act out again. The last major eruption was in 1944.

Last month, Italian volcanologists reported the results of their first three-dimensional super-computer simulation of an eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Their findings: If they are not evacuated, at least 300,000 people living near the volcano would be killed the next time it erupts. Scientists say they fear the next eruption could rival the one in 79 A.D.

This mountain isn't done yet.


When Pompeii disappeared, buried by ash and rocks, it was still rebuilding from a disastrous earthquake more than a decade earlier. The city lay covered until the late 1700s, when excavation efforts revealed the remains of a thriving center known for its commerce, politics and arts.

Nowhere is the drama of ancient Pompeii more evident than at the Forum - a large open grassy piazza - and beyond it, looming in the distance, Mount Vesuvius. During its peak, this was the site of temples, public buildings, a money exchange, a fish market, wine shops and a wool market.

And nowhere is the story more poignant than in the Garden of the Fugitives, which houses the bodies of 15 people caught in a field next to the amphitheater as they were trying to flee the eruption. When we visited, I had just finished reading Harris' novel, Pompeii, which describes the eruption like this: "It looked as if a sturdy brown arm had punched through the peak and was aiming to smash a hole in the roof of the sky ... bang bang: that double crack - and then a hard-edge rumble, unlike any other sound in nature, that came running across the plain."

It certainly overtook these victims, who died from poisonous sulfur fumes. Remarkably, their bodies were encased in ashes and pumice that solidified over time. When the area was discovered in the 1960s, cavities in the ground created by the decayed bodies were filled with plaster. It is these lifelike plaster casts that show today's visitors the ancient inhabitants of Pompeii, frozen forever in time.

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