FABRIZIO FIORENZANO | PHOTOJOURNALIST
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On August 24 of the year 79 AD, when the volcano Vesuvius destroyed the city, Pompeii was a very prospering and beautiful centre.
A man was found in a street still holding a few gold coins in his hand. Perhaps he was a thief, or just someone who only wanted to save his money. Nobody will ever know who this man really was.
Whatever was the purpose of that small treasure, its destiny was to be buried for more than 1,500 years. That fugitive was a citizen of Pompeii - the favourite vacation site for rich Romans – a city that was to be destroyed in just one day.
It was the lunch-hour and storekeepers were closing their shops; some boys and girls were chatting by the fountain at the street corner when, suddenly, an incredibly and violent earthquake broke the silence and the peace of the city. Loaves of bread were abandoned in the furnaces and most inhabitants escaped immediately, but the earthquake was only the first signal of a more worrisome incoming danger. Many people could not bring themselves to abandon their homes; a small group of people were at a funeral banquet, where they were found many centuries later. Others stayed behind to hide their valuable objects, only to be buried by the volcano together with their possessions. Many others, instead, loaded their things and their animals in carts and attempted to escape from the city, only to end up blocked in its narrow streets.
28 hours later, when finally Vesuvius stopped erupting, Pompeii had been buried by a 7-metre deep layer of lava, together with 2,000 of its 20,000 inhabitants. Almost all of them were suffocated to death by the toxic volcanic sulphuric gases and the city was erased from the surface of the planet.
It was a terrible tragedy, a disaster - and yet, while Pompeii was annihilated by the fury of the volcano, at the same time, the eruption was what preserved it through the centuries.
Just sixteen years earlier, Pompeii had been struck by another violent earthquake from which the inhabitants had slowly recovered, clearing the ruins and rebuilding their homes.
“Welcome profit!”: this is just one of the many graffiti that may be found on the walls of the city.
Pompeii was a very busy centre, which had gradually become industrialized during the second and third century BC. Every eight days it was Market Day, as in the neighbouring cities. Initially, trading activities were concentrated in the Foro area, but many years later, the commercial area had grown to cover Via dell’Abbondanza, that was transformed into a street full of stores and taverns. Most Pompeiian businesses traded in farm goods and from the charred food remains found among the ruins of Pompeii, we know that their diet consisted primarily of vegetables, fruit, bread and oil, with some meat and fish.
The most beautiful and suggestive feature of Pompeii is, of course, the number of wonderful mural paintings that were brought back to light through the centuries. Almost all of the paintings found in Pompeii are a true sample of wonderful Roman art.
The variety of decorating techniques used by the Pompeiians to paint the walls of their houses is evident. The most common technique used to adorn the houses was to apply two or three layers of calcareous plaster mixed with sand and calcite to the walls, then to paint the background. After the walls were completely dried, decorations were added. Glue and wax were mixed with coloured limestone to make it bind to the surface. Using these methods, the paints became shiny and durable.
The city and its tragedy were forgotten for many centuries. In the year 1748, the chief engineer of the Kingdom of Naples, Alcubierre, inspected a tunnel excavated 150 years earlier, with the sole purpose of drawing water from the nearby Sarno River. By sheer coincidence, the base of the first well excavated by Alcubierre ended directly in the business centre of Pompeii, where a wonderful painting was brought to light.
In 1763, the German scholar Johann Winckelmann was fascinated by the secrets of Pompeii.
To gain access to the ruins he had to bribe the Foreman of the excavation site, after which he unearthed many relics and artefacts of extreme importance. Unfortunately, Winckelmann was murdered only a few days later.
A century later, the Italian archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli introduced a new excavation technique, proceeding slowly house by house and street by street, so to avoid any possible damage to the ruins.
Remarkably, an estimated 30% of the original Pompeii is still buried under the lava, and we can only try to imagine what other possible treasures might be waiting to be unearthed from the most important archaeological site in the world.