Impressions on the veil of time
(after watching Knowledge Networks “Treasures of Ancient Rome”)
The background of this image is a fresco on the wall of the House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii. Many years ago I visited Pompeii and Herculaneum. I remember wincing at the plaster impressions of the final agony of people felled by the suffocating ash as they tried to flee on August 24, 79 AD. However I was even more touched by the simple and human objects that had been chiseled out of the ancient Vesuvian layers. In one villa room in Herculaneum, an infant’s charred cradle lies next to it’s parent’s bed. The lines of raised stepping stones on the narrow roads are placed so that people won’t get their feet wet while crossing in the rain. Loaves of bread now carbonized, still sit on shelves in bakery shops where they were placed for sale on the day that time stopped for the prosperous Roman city of Pompeii.
Portraits of family members painted on the walls of homes in the manner of today’s photographs seem to reach across time in a whispering “Ave” (this is us! we were here)! The frescoes are wonderfully preserved and often depict symbolic religious and mythological scenes as well as their beloved gardens.
The Romans had made an art out of leisure time. Their houses were built around the garden and the gardens were filled with roses, lilies, violets, honeysuckle, rosemary, bird baths and fountains.
This is a beautiful virtual tour of a well-to-do Roman house. When I sat in the Garden of the Vetti I remember thinking that here, in this capsule of eerie stillness and profound silence, time was only a blink or a fold in the veil of cosmic vision and if I was alert I might from the corner of my eye catch the sweep of a toga or stola, and glimpse a sandaled foot passing by the columns of the surrounding peristyle. I too was now stamped on a drift of this suspended tapestry.
The Romans also liked to write about their gardens
“With no cultivation
the earth pours forth it’s little gifts
climbing ivy everywhere with cyclamen
and colocasia mixed
with smiling acanthus.”- Virgil
“it is pleasing now to lie under an old oak tree, in the clingy grass, And meanwhile waters flow into full streams, and the birds are complaining in the woods”– Horace
We often think of the Romans historically as rather cruel and ruthless despots or immoral epicures, who sat cheering the bloodshed in Colosseum and arenas, but their poetry and essays on gardens, love, death and friendships are as moving and insightful as if written today. There is also Pliny the Younger’s eyewitness account of the Vesuvius disaster and his escape with his mother from Misenum. Though his mother begged him to leave her and save himself he would not. He was the nephew of Pliny the Elder, a naturalist and philosopher who started out to scientifically observe the phenomenon, but eventually died heroically trying to rescue people from the area by ship. Volcanologists today still refer to the younger Pliny’s description of this catastrophic and tragic event.
Also check out this video from the Melbourne Museum Masterpiece Exhibit of the sequence of events of that day- an absolutely amazing and terrifying reconstruction