Italy – Oddities and Observations

apt colorsA break this week from museums. I want to talk about things that struck me in Italy, but first one last note about Pompeii.  Despite my pictures, it was crowded with tourists. I had a chuckled thinking if visitors were issued a toga along with their ticket, it would give us a fuller picture of Pompeii when the ancient Romans lived there.

We got around the region with a little commuter train, the Circumvesuviana. The hotel receptionist said we were lucky – they strike often because they aren’t paid. The trains were graffiti’d like NYC in the old days. And there can be wandering musicians. At 8AM it’s a bit much. We also saw , a woman on the train who crossed herself at each station. Or maybe every time she saw a church. It being Italy, there were myriad churches.apt backs

The fronts of Italian houses and apartments are painted in beautiful old weathered colors. The backs? Not so much.  Hubby said if he were mayor, the first thing he’d do is hand out paint.

I’ve written about the motos, but there are a lot of tiny cars. Sometimes they were so tiny, they could park head in. There were also tiny three-wheeled trucks that sounded like lawnmowers, and even a tiny street sweeper. Made sense with all the narrow vias and viales.

A bit about our dinners (as requested.) Two of our nights in Sorrento we ate in the same place – Da Ginos. Hubby had a huge hunk of salmon, the wine was good, the service kind. We teased the waiter by asking if the wine was from California. We also asked if he recognized the difference between American and English accents. He said yes, American’s sound like…he then imitated a bad English actor being American. He asked which we were and said we didn’t sound American. Travelling incognito.

The last night we had dinner outdoors down by the sea – I had homemade pasta with the lemon sauce – meraviglioso. There were kids fishing nearby. They threw bread into the water and when the fish rose in flocks to feed, they tried to net them.  If they caught one, the restaurant would cook it.
Day One Treeslooker

Other notes. I love the umbrella trees, laundry hangs every where, and sometimes Italians watch the tourists.


Roman Ruins: Oplontis

motoslemon groveJust so you don’t think we saw only the ruins, a couple of shots of Sorrento. Motos everywhere and with the traffic, totally understandable. We saw a couple of dogs riding on them. With their owners of course.

The other shot is of an organic lemon grove. We went at the end of a long day; my feet were stubs. We went down the path to a little table, where a woman with a great Italian accent says, “Would you like to try some lemoncello?” Of course. She opens the tiny fridge behind her and pours us a swig. Wow! We bought a bottle and my hubby carried it all through Italy without breaking it. We now have a taste of our vacation some nights.

And now OPLONTIS… the villa of Nero’s second wife, which was discovered under the town of Torre Annunziata. In fact, the huge swimming pool (she was rich) cannot be totally excavated because it’s partially under a modern apartment building.Oplontis from Above

windowOplontis, unlike sprawling Pompeii which was filled with all classes of Romans, was a mansion for the 1%.  Compare the size of it with little box houses in the slide show at the bottom of my post.

We spent a couple of hours here, walking through room after frescoed room. Even the ceilings were decorated. One of the craziest rooms I called the zebra because it was black and white diagonal stripes. (Didn’t photograph well…)

There was definitely a color scheme, as you can see: gold and pink. Perhaps they were brighter in 79AD, but I love the feel of it now.

wall w poolroof

Notice the little decorations at the end of the roof. Reminded me of the little protrusions to break up falling snow on our slate roofs. But this villa never saw snow, unless you count the falling ash that buried it, so they are just decorative.

Finally a slide show of wall décor. I was amazed at what they felt decorative. Grasshoppers, anyone? And don’t miss the strangely art deco bubbles.

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Italy: Frescoes of Pompeii


The Romans had many comforts: running water in the wealthy homes (delivered by lead pipes – hmmm, does that explain Nero’s madness), drinking fountains on the streets, private gardens, a shopping mall, bakeries, taverns, chariots – okay, I’m not sure a chariot is comfortable, but perhaps it beats walking. Take a look at the table in the first picture. Very stylish, with the lions as legs.worship altar

They also had little religious shrines, much like I saw along the back roads in Italy on our trip. Different Gods, but the same idea.

But there are three surprising facts about the ancient Roman way of life.

First, they took their baths in public, although men were separated from women. One of the baths in Pompeii was newly restored, and for a population of 8-12 thousand, seemed small, especially compared to the baths in Bath, England, which I have seen. But oh my, the luxury. As usual, there were three rooms, the frigidarium, the tepidarium and the caldarium. You can guess the temperature of the water in the first two, which leaves calda = hot in Italian. In one room, the edge of the ceiling was sculpted with various scenes. I loved the horses, although I’m not sure what they had to do with frieze

Secondly, pottery containers for oil or olives or whatever were carried with sticks through their handles and weren’t flat on the bottom. Counters had holes to receive the pots. The picture on the right is one of several storerooms I saw filled with pots.detail carrying potstored pots

Finally, the Romans didn’t hang pictures on their walls. They were frescoed and decorated with painting. The floors were mosaic and incorporated bits of white that would reflect the light from an oil lamp. The original night light. You can get an idea from the wall pictured at the left.wall fresco

The frescoes were arranged the same in many of the houses: a wide band, often painted with flowers at the bottom, the main wall sectioned into areas, and in each area a detail or a portrait or a full-on painting of a god lounging or a man entering his business. Even some ceilings were painted.detail mandetail flowersLady 1

Ancient Roman artists must have made a good living. I found these details irresistible. Imagine coming home to the smell of wet plaster and a tiny painting of your favorite flower, or goddess or insect. Not all the art is fantastic but the fact that we are looking at something painted almost 2000 years ago absolutely is!

An unusual “wallpapered” wall and a mosaic face from a tavern, lined with shells.detail wallpaper
detail shells
An example of a portrait. It’s about 4″ in diameter.
detail head
Sometimes decorations were in bas relief, like this fussy cupid.
detail fussy cupid
I didn’t know what this magnificent alcove was until I searched the internet. It appears to be a fountain. It was in a section that was closed; I caught it with a long lens. Look at the detail in the mosaic. Why don’t I have something like this in my house! Too hard to clean…

Here’s a link to my last post about the streets of Pompeii.
detail arch

The Streets of Pompeii

overviewThe exciting thing about history to me is that it was populated by real people. Without iPods, but with families, cook pots, chairs and houses. For me, historical objects bring these people to life. I once fell into tears in front of a sheet of music Mozart had written: his hand held the pen that wrote those notes. It connected me to him and to the music I love.
detail butt
So, Pompeii. I would describe it as the Miami of the Romans. It was on the sea then and had a population of 8-12 thousand, encompassing the rich, the middle class merchants and the poor. Of course all its glory came to an end in AD 79 when Vesuvius blew its top.

This week the apartments, theaters, bakeries, broad boulevards, malls, and fountains. Next week, inside the houses and the baths, with amazing frescos.

Each picture in the slideshow is numbered and explanations are below. You can pause the show to read if you are interested.

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  1. Entrance to Pompeii, a large door for chariots, a smaller one for people.
  2. Typical street. The stone blocks in the street allowed pedestrians to cross without getting their feet wet. They were spaced for chariot wheels. This is a one way street. There are also 2-way boulevards. Plus streets leading to the forum have “teeth” at the end to keep chariots out of the walking space.
  3. Tavern with a couple of rooms for prostitutes. Note the cooling pool in the center.
  4. A detail at the back of the tavern.
  5. Pizza oven anyone? This bakery ground flour in the mills on the right which were powered by donkeys, then baked the bread.
  6. A public fountain. Water came from aqueducts. In times of drought, the bathhouses were cut off first, then private homes, and lastly fountains.
  7. Stairs out of the theater.
  8. The center garden of a reconstructed house. Could be California or Florida could it not?
  9. Passageway beneath the large theater. Very much like a modern arena.
  10. An apartment. Note the fresco on the back wall. Most of these pix are grey but everything was painted in bright colors in 79 AD.