Location Threads: Naples & Herculaneum

I’ve just finished posting my new photo album, final shots from our recent trip to Italy. If you missed my earlier posts, here are the photos from the Greek cruise and Venice. The new images cover:

  • Naples and Herculaneum — a final cruise day
  • Rome
  • Siena
  • Florence

Here, I’m adding a few shot sequences from that set for the blog. The idea being that for a picture to actually be worth a thousand words requires a bit of context. The context or story can be about Mesa Arch at dawn or two Algerian boys looking at you from across a Paris square. But in both, the image is never fully abstract/formally artistic.  The social context helps drive the Paris shot. The desert location and our experience of that is the context for a sunrise shot in Canyonlands. That image works on our imagination and feelings because it is a container for human experience.

A lot of photo coffee table books will have an introductory essay that gives context. Some of those can be excellent. But they aren’t generally written by the photographer. They are by a friend or hired writer — because most photographers really don’t want to be writers. I need to be doing both.

I need to write about something to fully explore the experience. Somehow, putting the context into language — how I saw the shot, what that place represents, becomes my springboard for deeper exploration. So that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Naples and the Herculaneum tour

Naples was the final stop on our Eastern Mediterranean cruise before we got to Civitavecchia, the harbor city that feeds Rome. I didn’t expect too much from Naples. It has a rep of been dirty and a little dangerous and most folks who visit leave with some version of that perspective. But some travelers see the jewel in the mud, the fallen woman with a heart of gold. And both perspectives have some truth.

We only had a day in Naples. In cruise ship speak that means we’re dropping you off at 9 and if you’re not back by 6, find you way to the next stop. So we decided on the Herculaneum tour — which would leave us enough time to explore a bit of the city.

Herculaneum is closer to the city than Pompeii, way closer. It’s part of the greater Naples metro area. Herculaneum is different from Pompeii in other ways as well. When the eruption of Vesuvius hit in 79 AD, Pompeii was directly downwind and was covered in volcanic ash and debris almost instantly. Herculaneum was buried hours later by a thick slop of mud and lava and ash that was harder to penetrate and far deeper, 20 meters under ground.

That’s why the town was discovered so late, in the 1730s. At that time, there were some great discoveries made but the work was never handled like a serious excavation until the 20th Century. The thick, muddy covering made excavation harder but it also meant that more was preserved:

Unlike Pompeii, the pyroclastic material at Herculaneum which covered it preserved wooden and other organic-based objects such as roofs, beds, doors, food and even some 300 skeletons [Wiki].

Herculaneum Square

Herculaneum Square

Only a small part has been fully excavated,  6 or 8 blocks. And here you can see the eastern edge of the revealed area. Just a bit past this wall, you run into the modern metropolitan area, 3 and 4 story apartment complexes. You can see some of that in the top left of the shot.

The picture (below) of the statues shows the excavation background — and illustrates the fact that this entire town is below ground level.

Herculaneum, Naples

The general and the two kids are all on top of platforms higher than the visitor’s head. I tried to get a shot of these sculptures from below at first. But the images were too much like a one dimensional scrapbook entry. Then I noticed a stairway that leads to a higher level of the town, further away from the Herculaneum port. And from this higher angle, I could create a relationship between the visual elements.

Herculaneum, Naples

Herculaneum frescos

The town was a fairly exclusive Roman settlement and you can look anywhere in a building for art. Most walls seem to have had frescos like the one above.

Herculaneum, Naples

Herculaneum, Naples

This beautiful piece could be in the British Museum (they must wish they could grab it). And if it wasn’t built into the wall,  it would probably be at the National Archeological Museum in Naples with most of the other loose sculpture and household pieces found at Herculaneum.

Here’s a room with theater masks on the walls. There’s enough stucco and mosaic stone on top of the brick substrate to see the level of decorative complexity:

Fireplace with masks

Here’s the mosaic in a public bathhouse:

Mosaic floor

Bath house mosaic floor with Neptune and dolphins

Herculaneum gives you a far more immersive view of the old Roman towns than Pompeii — even though that town is many times larger.  The frescos at this site are better preserved, the workmanship is often better and the building structures are more intact.

It is disappointing that most of the good art is at the museum. But then, the town is totally open the the elements and the touch of the tourist and Italy doesn’t seem to want to spend money on security. A bigger disappointment is that the city (or Italy itself) hasn’t excavated more than a fraction of the old town.

According to our guide, the city authorities tried to convince the residents in the apartments that surround the site to move so they can excavate further. Everyone said no. The archeologists have zero clout, they don’t vote. So what could be the most complete example of Roman daily life is still buried under the weight of pyroclastic material.

There’s still a lot of excavation going on in the parts that have been put aside for the public trust. But even with so little of the building complex excavated, this is a great place to visit.

Unexplored territory

Unexplored territory

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