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Under the Volcano

Sun-drenched in the shadow of Vesuvius.

Jun 25, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 39 • By SARA LODGE
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The second thing to say is that it is vivid. After years of thinking of the Romans in terms of stone—square-jawed statues, die-straight roads, military installations—I was wholly unprepared for the delicacy and playfulness of the interior design in these Roman houses. The inferno red, butter yellow, and coal black paintwork make the mythological frescoes, the fantasy landscapes of exotic architecture, birds, and animals, sing. Cupids race chariots around the walls. In the garden of one house, a cheerful and busty Venus lounges on a shell, looking like a 1950s pinup. 

It’s easy to imagine the fun that was had in this town. In the House of Menander, there are slightly kitsch mosaics of pygmies sporting with ducks and water lilies, and a private bathroom with a mosaic of a grinning slave with an enormous penis. Phalluses are everywhere in Pompeii—as symbols of fertility, prosperity, and male power. They wink from kitchens and bars, where one once hung as a lamp, adorned with wings and bells.

Politics is also omnipresent. In a pre-paper world, campaign posters were simply painted onto the front of buildings. New ones were painted over the old, so we have a record of the men who competed for public office in Pompeii for decades before the fatal eruption. Interestingly, politicians in the Roman world did not stand on the basis of policy proposals—merely on wealth and character. And negative campaigning was rife; several of the painted signs were evidently put up by opponents trying to cast aspersions on their rivals’ fanbase: “The late night drinkers are voting for Marcus Vatia; the pickpockets endorse Caius Julius Polybius.” 

Many of the houses and rooms in Pompeii are locked. But, typically, a banknote discreetly dropped into the pocket of an attendant will gain you admission. Tourist sandals troop over the 2,000-year-old mosaics and the obliging guard may even throw water on them to make the colors shine. It was ever thus. Italy has seen many rulers come and go; Italians therefore tend to regard rules as inherently flimsy.

On the last day of my visit, Silvio Berlusconi resigned. In Rome, critics of his scandal-ridden premiership sang a Hallelujah chorus. But in Amalfi, it was quite possible to not know that the government had changed. The televisions were silent, except for football. Nobody mentioned the news. You could see why: Southern Italy, as Lampedusa commemorated in The Leopard, knows all about gattopardismo (“leopardism”). The change of spots is illusory. Administrations alter, but the same concentration of power, the same abuses, remain.

Italy’s economy, the eighth-largest in the world, is shuddering. The country owes $2.2 trillion, or 120 percent of its GDP. Since it is one of the world’s largest markets for government bonds, the explosive potential of its debt mountain threatens all of Europe. But life goes on as usual. The tremors will pass. So said Lucius Jucundus in August 79 a. d., shaking a stone out of his sandal on the way to work out, have a sauna, and catch a comedy before bed, on just another late summer day with a hint of fall in the air.

Sara Lodge, a senior lecturer in English at the University of St Andrews, is the author of Thomas Hood and Nineteenth Century Poetry: Work, Play, and Politics.

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