Once upon a time there was a boy, at that age between childhood and adolescence, who had the good fortune to live in a city suspended between an incredible past and an equally incredible present; and this boy was inquisitive, enterprising and well-mannered enough to accompany one of the greatest archaeologists of the time as he worked on the Pompeii excavations.
- What’s in those crates, Don Amede’?
- Finds, Anto’; be careful, they’re fragile.
- And what finds are they?
- If you want to know that you have to help me. You’ve learned the verb conjugations at school?
- So you know what a past participle is?
- Yes, yes, I know, the teacher told us, and I liked it a lot, because it’s a verb that participates, it changes to give us adjectives and nouns. Yes, verbs are generous like that…
- And yes, you’re right. Well, reperto [find] is the past participle of the verb “reperire“, which means to look for something uncertain, like a challenge. In Italian we say “aleatorio” [aleatory]. But, as you say, the verb is generous, and by its past participle has given us a name for the outcome of the challenge, the finding of something we weren’t sure was there… That’s a find.
Archaeology is considered to be a relatively young discipline, an inclination that arose in the modern age. But if we look at it as a human need, a propensity, we soon see that it existed much earlier in the form of antiquarianism, the passion for artifacts, artworks, shreds and fragments of the past that have ended up, by more or less crooked paths, in the hands of a living person. Therefore a need for the ancient, the previous, captivates the human being by its nature, appealing to memory, identity, knowledge of thought and wisdom, and to an inclination to beauty — which has many dresses — and art.
Erudites, biographers, anecdotists, aesthetes and classicists, raised on bread and antiquity, have often used a dual method to extract didascalies, paradigms and moralia from the past: place it at an unparalleled level, thus removing all baseness, and assume that over there, in the past, a peak, an acme was reached. In this way it is easy to infer that the only task for those living today is to attempt, if not to achieve, at least to emulate the greatness of bygone days, which can easily become “classics”.
Pompeii is an extraordinary mechanism for the generation of classics; among the ruins you face them from every place, and it seems that since its second life — post 1748 — it has provided many generations with topics and structures with which to build their own bespoke classics, as a tradition that is tried and trusted, functional, effective and easily shared. Even slightly comfortable. And naturally, the antithesis to this are the breakages which, nevertheless, are no more than new combinations of the same factors in different — even opposite — terms to the canons; terms which are therefore necessary, even if only as a causa causarum, to any avant-garde, which in its turn will become a classic for those who come after.
However, antiquities have different abilities, for instance they provide us with materials for recognizing our identity, and not only on the personal level. Once understood, this mechanism has been widely used, and still is, partly in the constitution of Nations, a task that has encompassed the whole of the modern age and been fostered by the finds: and if you believe this is an Italian matter, bear in mind the extent to which the customs of the Germans, Celts, Slavs, Danish and Britons were among the sources that supplied many elements of the national Bildung. And if you think this mechanism is fading — alongside the western world’s crisis of nineteenth century’s nationalities — you will find this thoroughly disproved in many of today’s documents; first and foremost the definition of cultural heritage brought to Italy by the 2004 Code of the Cultural and Landscape Heritage, or the “foundation of identity” explicitly perceived in the landscape of both the 2000 European Convention and domestic legislation.
The extraction of the past is not, in fact, a merely didactic function, least of all at the historical level; to take an example, I am struck by the documents that attest to the appearance of the Athens Acropolis until its bombardment in 1687, and — by pointing this out to those who see this as a barbaric act in an obscurantist past, impossible today — I can’t help but draw an unhappy comparison with the terrible replica that, coming from above rather that the surroundings, destroyed an important portion of the Pompeii archeological site in 1943.
- Look at that picture, Anto’, there’s a boy about your age; he even looks a bit like you.
- But… boys wore skirts in Pompeii!
- Well, just think of them as robes; skirts and pants are ultimately very similar.
- Ah no, Don Amede’, say what you like, much as I respect you, I’m not wearing a skirt; I’d rather go naked.
- You’re right, Anto’, but if you’d lived in the first century you’d have worn a tunic and felt fine about it; what’s more, maybe you’d hate to wear pants. Who knows.
- Yes, but I’m living now, so no skirts!
- Alright, no skirts, but you have to admit that it doesn’t make much difference what you wear: the boy in the picture is one boy, and you’re another, one in a skirt, as you say, and you in your short pants.
- Exactly….I like the game he’s playing too, that looks like a ball.
- That’s right, it is; but come with me, I’ll show you how they played hide and seek… Look: you can play in a skirt too!
- Don Amede’, you make me want to try it…
Apart from feeling awe, when I’m in Pompeii, like most people, I usually find myself torn between two opposing forces: noting the differences between such an accomplished view of the ancient city and today’s version; or, on the contrary, finding the similarities: you might say measuring the distance in the former, and the closeness in the latter.
The first of these perceptions (“How different they were!“) implies the passage of time and can bring the satisfaction of recognizing evolution: the changes that have occurred — even without any value judgement — lend consistency to the dimension of time by the very fact of being there, perceptible, and they reveal themselves only if a lapse has occurred between us and those who lived before, during which so much happened that we can not only imagine, but actually see (and here’s the magic) the deviation and thus a flow, the development of a course: today we are at a different point in the journey, although it is debatable whether it is higher or lower, ahead or behind. Pompeii, therefore, is somewhere else for the living.
The second approach (“They’re just like us!” “nothing’s changed in two thousand years”) is the opposite, because it places the proof of time’s non-existence outside human perception; it treats time as a social object, in other words one of the things that exist and are dependent on humans, and are built by means of more or less intentional constructs, like — just saying — money, mortgages, constitutions, borders. And of course, it is comforting to be able to rely on immutable things, and thus to see evolution as illusory, smoke and mirrors, and least of all not to believe in progress, a deception belied by the evidence of “eternal return”. Seen in this way, much the same as today’s cities, Pompeii can therefore be a demonstration that our path — if it exists — is circular, and that in spite of great efforts, automata and the internet, we continue to revolve around the same basic points; they may change shape and technical potency, but not their substance.
Obviously these are paradoxical approaches and actually nobody would agree radically with just one of them; it is much more likely that they coexist to shape our contemporary perception of Pompeii, as of any other evidence of the past. Nothing, we may say, remains inert, everything continues to change, to flow, and even if we invoke the “counter-cycles” of Giambattista Vico, we should remember that he described them as an “unfolding”, as “uninterrupted progression of the entire universe of nations”: while the path of humankind is made of circles, these are concentric and so as we circle through the course of time, humans always come back to an already experienced area, but not at the same point. And the path is not immersed in homogeneous time, but instead is the source of its heterogeneity and plurality.
Because actually, even if we combine distance and closeness, difference and similarity, and thus accept that these Pompeiian ruins are evidence of all of these, there remain several aspects that are hard to deny.
The enormous value, first and foremost, of a place that makes us understand the breadth of the human dimension, since the differences we see are not in comparison with other creatures, animal kingdoms different from our own or other planets, but men and women and the differences we see along with so many similarities are fascinating, attractive, and open to anyone.
Tourists and scholars from all over the world and speaking every language find immediate relation with ancient Pompeii, which in this way succeeds in “speaking” to all, like a universal dictionary, a “mental language common to all nations” (Vico again), a kind of translator beyond words, a globish distinct from any lingua franca because it lacks mediation; it is sincerely, directly universal: an ecumene.
Difference next to the same, distance in closeness, the strange over the commonplace: these are the ingredients for the potion offered by ancient Pompeii which, without contradiction, can also be called terribly contemporary, just as stated on the front page of Naples newspaper “Il Mattino” (the one of Warhol’s FATE PRESTO) in 2017, introducing the exhibition Pompei@Madre. Archaeological Matters.
When you’re in Pompeii it is difficult to escape its extraordinary landscape, which seems to me a genuine paradigm for how we treat it today. There are not only the ruins, but also a setting whose present-day appearance — fascinating, but also terrible, even horrific — is due to many factors. In Pompeii I find not spaces, but places, which could be seen as objects made by humans, but this would neglect — at the very least — the role of the volcano in the events, both in terms of the obvious part played by Vesuvius in the rapid destruction, killing and elimination of centuries-old settlements and thus cancelling the mark made by humankind and remodeling geography; and in the preservation of its traces and vestiges under a genuine protective blanket of geology, almost a womb that received, covered, coated and preserved human traces and remains, artifacts and footprints, both full and empty, in an extremely long gestation.
Vesevo Sterminator, but also Creator; the generator, co-maker of incredible objects and shapes to which we owe, among other things, a color: the Pompeii Red, in fact. Hephaestus — son of Hera, no accident — at work in his forge of flame and smoke, whom the Romans called — again no accident — Vulcan.
- What’s this, dust from the digging? It’s lovely, so white…
- No, Anto’, it’s plaster of Paris. It’s a pain to get hold of, and so expensive…
- Plaster of Paris? What’s special about it? The teacher uses chalk to write on the board; isn’t it just as good?
- It depends what you need it for. The fact is that a predecessor of mine had an idea. Many of the people who died here in Pompeii in the 79 AD eruption stayed for centuries under a strange kind of soil, made of lightweight ash, almost like a robe, which hardened around their bodies; over time, their limbs, organs and tissues disappeared, but along with some organic remains, the space they occupied stayed. Fiorelli — that was my predecessor’s name — realized this could be an imprint, a mold, like the ones you use on the beach, and that by filling it we could reveal the shapes of the bodies; what was needed was a suitable material, delicate as sand but tough: plaster of Paris, in fact. These days we use other materials too: come, I’ll show you the latest ones we’ve done, we call them “the fugitives”.
- Whoah… are they alive? They look like stone people!
- Ah, they might look that way, like dead people who rise again along with their city as it’s excavated… Hey, Antonio, don’t get upset. They were humans once, but these are representations, made by us and by Vesuvius. And you know what’s strange? That thanks to the fact the volcano “made” them with us, they’re not statues or castings, and no-one can criticize them too much. But if a sculptor tried to create something similar, there would be trouble. Years ago a very talented young artist made a tragic figure, a woman lying on the ground, inspired by our molded figures and designed for a tomb in a Milan cemetery: they had to remove it, it was too shocking…
- Who was the sculptor?
- His name was Medardo Rosso; he died a few years ago.
- What an odd name! It almost sounds like he was destined to be an artist!
- Yes, you’re right; but do you understand how unique these casts are? They’re not statues, they’re not people; they’re something else: they’ve given death a body, pain a shape, tragedy a figure…
- It’s terrible; I’m sure I’ll dream about them tonight…
And, as always when it’s to do with the landscape, in Pompeii I’m tempted towards nostalgia, that rogue that makes us retain only sweet and gentle memories of the past, sharpening the pain of living in the present. Yes, in Pompeii everything seems arranged to trigger the sly mechanism that compares golden antiquity with mediocre modernity, elegies of yesterday incomparable with the small affairs of today. It’s a scam, just like the idea that landscape refers to beauty and reassuring views; a sort of Prozac before Prozac. Just pause a moment, look down, among the excavations, to find the multitude of sordid and petty stories, ignorance and exploitation, inequality and injustice, pain and boredom, which find a shape, even an aesthetic, under the ruins of the city. No; in Pompeii I know there’s no Eden, Arcadia nor Parnassus, no more than there is today. Even though today we search, curate, study documents, record human experience in the natural world, and we debate the issue of natura naturans and natura naturata.
And while, for example, here we continue to write on walls, just as people did two thousand years ago (“nothing’s changed…”), it is true that today there are many, many people who can do so — write and read — while before there were very few. And in fact, thanks to the spread of literacy, we have been able to use writing on walls as a “small fable” (Vico) or a “mini myth” (Gillo Dorfles), in short, as a metaphor, a meta-consciousness to extract the idea of public writing on digital walls seen by billions of others and, while we’re at it, to allow those others to react and to write in their turn. The writing on the walls of Pompeii, so far from being epigraphic, could basically be seen as the posts of the first century, and it may not be a mistake to assume that the same need, unchanged, lies behind both. But we would be blind not to see how different the world is with Facebook and Instagram, in other words the world that saw their founding and ubiquitous spread, compared to a world in which writing “barbara barbaribus barbabant barbara barbis” on the wall of a building was open to only a few, and even fewer could read it. Just as very few people could have recourse to graffiti on walls to express themselves in public, while today billions of people do just that with images on the virtual walls of social media.
If we bring these and other characteristics together, it is quite easy to come to the conclusion that in its second life Pompeii became, essentially, a device. What’s more, it is a multifunctional one, able to activate numerous elements, but stemming from an initial act, which drives the mechanism: exhumation.
It is the actus contrarius to burial (“inumazione” in Italian) that according the etymology proposed by Vico (in-humation) lies at the heart of humanitas, one of the occurrences of human civilizations (which Vico defined in the modern sense as “Nations”) that confirms the regularity of certain structures in every age and every place in the world, legitimizing the Scienza Nuova (New Science), forerunner of today’s Humanities. The extraction from underground of ancient places and faraway lives is, actually, an exhumation, but in the etymological sense; an ex-humation, and it clings to a need which is as human as its reciprocal, and demands to be marked with a similar respect.
Just as for burial, ex-humation too must be done with ritual, the main difference being that while what happens after burial does not burden the living because it is related to mystery and hence its rites are cult-like, the consequences of ex-humation touch us, enter our sphere of responsibility (commitment) and our lives, affecting our knowledge of human beings and their relationship with the context in which their life unfolds; and so the routines that affect them may be cultural and technical, in a serious burden of care.
And this is where the matter of maintenance arises, the most modest and humble form of care; these days we know much more about it, to the extent that we have been able to codify certain aspects as standard techniques.
We have realized, for example, that in order to be maintained, a thing must be maintainable, and this led to the concept of “maintainability”: “the predisposition of an entity, in given conditions of use, to being maintained or restored to a state in which it can fulfil the required function, when maintenance is carried out under the given conditions, with established procedures and methods” (UNI 9910 standard). But in addition to having recourse to a technique, we need to trust in its reliability, and above all, develop a way to use its meaning. This is a valuable element that guided the way in which the Pompeii Archaeological Park initiated the impressive new phase of its excavations, after many decades, by reversing the traditional course and planning its interventions on the basis of conservation and display needs, and gradually working back to the excavation itself: ex-humation can only be authorized if the maintainability is assured.
And so, always in accordance with the need for respect, it is understandable that Pompeii has installed a complex maintenance system, with extensive use of surveillance technology, intended as a “combination of all technical, administrative and managerial actions during the life cycle of an item intended to retain it in, or restore it to, a state in which it can perform the required function” (UNI EN 13306). But we should add the knowledge that the “function” of the “item” of Pompeii is essentially its fruition, not solely for reasons linked to the physiological purpose of the nation’s cultural heritage, but also in the heightened belief that use of the site serves its conservation.
The maintenance program carried out on the Archaeological Park today obviously affects the tangible artifacts and ecofacts, so that they can continue to exist among us, as far as possible in the form in which they arrived, or at least without further deterioration. But their mere existence is not eloquent enough; like anything, to be is a necessary but not sufficient condition to be present: the meaning, the motives, the functions, the history and the thinking these items convey are also subject to excavation, research, a yearning for understanding. Meaning too is a find to be discovered, brought into the light and used.
And this is why, as we work in Pompeii, we try and take care of it as if handling a device that is also a provider of knowledge, awareness, consciousness, spirit, experience, emotion, delight and enjoyment, ideas and economy. And it is a privilege to contribute to the maintenance of not only the tangible material but also the vast reservoir of the intangible it delivers to humanity from every era, in the form of traces, documents, objects and projects like the Pompeii Commitment. An immaterial material which, I am increasingly convinced, is probably the true core of our universal and thus timeless heritage, and demands our care.
- Don Amede’, what are you doing with that tool?
- I’m measuring, Antonio; every commitment requires measuring.
- And what are you measuring?
- Many things: the objects we find, of course, but also the depth of the excavations, the matter we remove, the layers of soil we come across, the size of the area, its distance from known places…. but for me the most interesting thing to measure is the meaning.
- And how do you measure meaning?
- Good question, Anto’, good question.
P.S. Giambattista Vico, whose forgiveness I humbly ask, died in 1744, just four years before the unveiling of ancient Pompeii. But he had probably dug it up already, in his mind.
Pierpaolo Forte is a member of the Board of Directors of Pompeii Archaeological Park