Friday, 13 April 2012


Herculaneum is the best-preserved of all classical sites--at least, if there is a better-preserved site, I don't know about it.  (If someone out there does, please, tell me!  I'll get there ASAP, camera at the ready!)  Look at that ceiling!  Probably you can't make them out, but the impluvium is ringed witha decoration of little bronze dog-heads.  Look at the remains of the paintwork; look at the wooden partition, charred but intact, which once screened off the back of the courtyard! Where Pompeii was buried in ash and debris, which collapsed the roofs of its buildings, Herculaneum was encased in hot mud-flows, which set like concrete, preserving the city as it was in the moment Vesuvius erupted--even to the price of different sorts of wine.

It is, therefore, a bit odd that Herculaneum tends to be treated as Pompeii's poor relation.  It's true that it isn't as big.  In Pompeii you can wander  for miles; in Herculaneum you're confined to about sixteen city blocks, since that's all that's been excavated.  Sixteen blocks, though, is about as much as any normal tourist can cope with at one go, and there's more to see in a smaller area, so you'd think tour companies would prefer it.  You'd think, too, that the modern town of Ercolano would view it as a gold-mine, and be proud of it.  There is so much continuity.  Looked at from across the ruins, the modern and ancient towns seem to blend together.

Alas, modern Ercolano has little interest in ancient Herculaneum.  Arrive at the city on the Circumvesuviana railroad--the most convenient way of getting there from Naples or the Sorrentine Peninsula--and you will not find a single sign to direct you to the ruins--which are only about a ten minute's walk away down a hill.  When I visited with my mother, she could not find a single shop or kiosk in the town which stocked postcards; she was so annoyed that she went and complained to the tourist office--which didn't have any postcards, either. A local volunteer, who happened to overhear her complaint, lamented the attitude of the town authorities--he said he had regularly complained about boys playing football in the fragile ruins, but nobody had taken any action to protect them.  He, like the guards we met on the site, was knowledgeable and enthusiastic, but one sensed he was close to despair over the attitude of his fellow-citizens.

My mother was trying to buy her postcards in the town because the shop at the archaeological site was closed.  So was the onsite  museum.  So were many of the best buildings in the town.  The suburban baths, which I visited the last time I was in Herculaneum, were closed as unsafe and propped up with scaffolding--that was where they found the bodies of the ancient dead, a very moving and evocative place.  There were numerous placards about the site entrance referring to the money donated by (mostly American and British) foundations for conserving the site, but there was not, actually, much to show for their efforts, and one did wonder whether the money was being siphoned off.  The problems the Neapolitan region has with corruption are, of course, notorious.

The House of the Gladiators at Pompeii collapsed last year after heavy rains, and many other buildings, there, in Herculaneum, and throughout the rest of Italy are threatened with the same fate.  Sufficient funds for conservation weren't provided by the previous government, and it's unlikely that the present austerity government will be more generous.  My advice to any one who hasn't seen Pompeii or Herculaneum has to be, go now.

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