Monday, 26 September 2011

La Trinità della Cava - Monastery

Today we go home and this morning we have a bit of a filler with no relationship to Romans at all before we leave for the airport.

All week we have heard the clock bells from the Benedictine Abbey in the village. They

Bell Tower

start at 6 am, chime every 15 minutes and seem to carry on until 11 pm. They are loud (but rather nice). This year is the 1000th anniversary of the founding of the monastery by Alferius of Pappacarbona (aka St Alferius).

Looking Down

We were told that now there are only 12 monks living in the large monastery at the

Plan of Abbey

rear of the church.

Front of Abbey

We are going on a guided tour of the Church, the cave where Alferius lived (now under the church) and also we are going to see a few items in the museum. No photographs are allowed in the

Abbey Corridor

museum where there is quite a nice majolica ware floor or the museum where there are some ancient vellum parchments.

The church is decorated in a very ornate


baroque style with every square millimetre of floor, wall and ceiling space covered.

Ceiling Ceiling-1

Even the ceilings are works of art

One of the Caves

and perhaps the only section that was not decorated was the walls of one of the caves Alferius lived in (he also seemed to have lived in a number of caves below this one in the crypt of the church).

It is very ornate and not to everyone’s taste. If you want to see more you will have to go there.

The trip back was easy apart from the plane being late. Other than being exhausted, we had a great time, learnt a lot and enjoyed being with our new friends.

Andante were very good, as was our guide, tour manager and coach driver. Where to next with Andante we wonder – we will have to try to fit something in during 2013 because 2012 is already full.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Oplontis – the Villa Poppea

Villa Poppea

The Villa Poppea at Torre Annunziata (Roman Oplontis) is an astonishing villa in terms of the quality of its frescoes and its size. It was thought to have been owned by the second wife of Nero - Poppaea Sabina. She was his mistress and later became his 2nd wife. In 65AD when she was pregnant, he kicked her in the stomach and she died.Beryllos Slave of Nero  

This deduction stems from some graffiti scratched in wet plaster which says “Mnesthei Beryllos” meaning “Be Beryllos Remembered” (or remember Beryllos). Beryllos was the name of Nero’s secretary.

It was uninhabited at the time of the eruption as was possibly under repair from the 62AD earthquake – this being deduced from the fact that little furniture but a lot of building materials were found there. It has a large swimming pool which was full of water at the time of the eruption.

It was discovered in the 1500s when a canal was being dug through the site (they carried on digging) and not excavated properly until the 1960s. Part of the villa is still under modern buildings and other villas are known to be nearby.

It is hard to take decent photographs in the villa because flashes are banned because of possible damage to the frescoes.

So as an amuse-bouche:

Triclinium 1 

Part of the Triclinium

Apollos Shrine

Apollos Shrine Detail

A fresco in Apollo’s Shrine and a detail from it.


A moulded and painted pelmet around the top of one of the room

Attrium wth late second style

Looking from a bedroom through an atrium with a plant growing in the atrium, a second style fresco of a plant on a wall of the atrium and a window beyond.

Calderium Calderium Fresco 1

A niche in the caldarium and a detail of the fresco on the wall which shows Hercules in the Hesperides orchard (he had to kill a dragon and steal some apples).

Fresco Details 

A clever fresco of a glass vase


Peristyle Detail 1

Around the peristyle were second and fourth style frescos. Above a second style bird and below some larger sections of a fourth style fresco


Peristyle fourth style

and some details from this fresco.

Peristyle Detail Frog or Mouse
a bird a dormouse or a frog
Peristyle 4th Style Detail
a grasshopper
Peristyle Goat
a running goat

Around the villa are a few signs of everyday life such as


a wooden door also showing its hinges,


the kitchen,

Communal Latrine

and the toilet.

This really is a wonderful villa and although close to the Torre Annunziata Circumvesuvana Station, it does not seem to have many visitors because most go to Pompeii, some to Herculaneum and few to elsewhere.

There are numerous websites devoted to this villa including Google Sites, Wikipedia and The Oplontis Project.


The task this morning is to climb Vesuvius, not from the bottom thank goodness but from the car park which is about 500 metres below the true summit.


Toilets in Italy are a variable matter and our Tour Manager Belinda seems to know the location and quality of every toilet in the area and so we stop off at a service station on the Autostrada on our way to Vesuvius to make use of the facilities. This also gives us a view of the volcano.

Looking at the photo above, the volcano car park is on the left hand side of the volcano somewhat below the flattish bit of the rim. You then walk up to and around the rim and if you hire a guide (around 75 euro per group), you can go up to the highest part of the rim.

Car Park

Just below the summit is a long thin car park with a cafe and a certain amount of chaos. There used to be a cable car to the summit (well known through the song Funiculì, funiculà), but this fell out of use in 1944 after an eruption.

Entrance Ticket

A booth sells tickets to proceed further for 8 euro (2011) and a


rather nice range of tacky souvenirs are available as you go through the entrance.

1944 Lava Flow

On the right as you walk up is a view of the 1944 lava flow (the last serious eruption).

Path up

The path wends it way uphill and is a very easy walk in normal shoes.

View over Naples   

Although there is a view of Naples (as you go up) and Pompeii when you have got to the top, it is usually very hazy and good views are unlikely.

Guide Service Office

We picked up a tour guide to take us to the very top at the Guide Service Office but immediately I started to doubt his word because he seemed very evasive and kept saying it might or might not be possible to get to the top that day. However, not being an Italian speaker, I kept quiet and we went on.

Explanation of explosuion

He explained the shape of the volcano with a picture drawn on the path – essentially the left hand side blew off at some stage.

Vesuvius Crater

The crater is of a typical shape with not a lot happening at the moment (thank goodness). The picture above has the lower part of the rim on the right and the high part of the rim (refer to the picture at the top of this blog) over the rest of the picture. If you proceed to the top, you just walk further and go up onto the high part of the rim (sensible shoes essential).


Fumaroles are everywhere but you can only get to them by climbing over the fence (as our “guide” and we did).

Second summit

After about 1 km, you get to a second office at 1167m above sea level and here general access stops. At this point our “guide” decided he could not go further (we suspect because he was receiving lots of interesting offers from people we had passed on the way up) – so we never got to the highest point on Vesuvius!

If you want to monitor Vesuvius activity from afar, click here which takes you to the volcano monitoring site and also where there is more information about the volcano.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Herculaneum and Boscoreale

Herculaneum (click on the name to go to Google sites about the town) is similar to Pompeii in that it is a buried city but it is also different in a number of important respects.

It was smaller (about 1/4 of the population) and only about 1/4 of the city is excavated. It is in better condition than Pompeii and as a visitor, you get a far better feel as to how a city worked. It also attracts fewer tourists.

By now, we are feeling more confident when we approach a site in that we are beginning to be able to “read a site”. However our guest lecturer and mentor (Alistair Small) is too polite to tell us if we have got it completely wrong and are talking rubbish! And so today, after an initial guided tour, we are being given some time on our own to go off and explore with our developing knowledge (not that it has ever been banned).

Once you have got past the helpful Information Point (no staff, no maps, no cafe, no seats (“do not sit on the floor”) but not “no entrance fee”)Entrance Desk

the image that greets you is quite astonishing

Herculaneum VIsta

Laid out below you is a seemingly working city (without its original inhabitants).

[AnnotatedMap-a.jpg]At the bottom of the plan (and also the photograph) is where the dockside originally was.

Looking along the shore

Ignore that it looks like a moat, it is now below sea level and pumps are constantly pumping water out. Apparently the water is full of bullfrogs but we did not see any.

Ash levels

The town was covered by 20m of a different type of mud and ash to that at Pompeii and this photograph shows the thickness at the “sea shore”.

You get into the city either by crossing a bridge at the far end of the panorama photograph or (best choice) by going down a tunnel (again starting at the far end) which brings you out on the sea shore. Thus you enter the city as its seaborne inhabitants would have.

Once in the city, to the left is

Alley up from docks

a narrow alley that was one of the routes up from the docks and to the right is a plinth erected in memory of Marcus Nonius Balbo.

Nonius Balbo Plinth and Statue

He was the city's major benefactor restoring and building many public buildings. On his death he was made patron and feted with many honours, detailed in the long inscription on his funeral altar.

Nonius Balbo Inscription
“In view of the proposal of Marcus Ofillius Celer, twice duumvir, that the dignity of the township required recognition of the merits of Marcus Nonius Balbus, the Council resolved the following: Seeing that Marcus Nonius Balbus, so long as he lived here showed a parental disposition of extraordinary generosity to individuals and the community, the councillors decided that an equestrian statue be erected to him at public expense in the most frequented spot with the inscription: 'To Marcus Nonius Balbus, praetor, proconsul, patron, (from) the entire Council of the people of Herculaneum in recognition of his merits. Further, at the spot where his ashes are laid a marble altar should be made and erected, and publicly inscribed: 'To Marcus Nonius Balbus son of Marcus' and that the procession of Parentalia should part from this spot, and that at the customary athletic games one day should be dedicated to his honour, and on the occasion of performances at the theatre a seat should be placed for him.

Many of the streets look like the original inhabitants have just gone inside for a few moments

Decumano Inferirore

except perhaps for the lack of

Cardo IV-1


Heculuaneum Street 1    Decumanus Maximus Left Decumanus Maximus Right

Above is the Decumanus Maximus – the main street which always runs East-West.

Water pipes in streetCar

The old water system is evident with lead pipes under the pavement and a nice T off one into a house. On the old water tower (behind the water trough) in the right hand picture above

Do not shit in the streets 

is a sign which says:

Anyone who wants to shit in this place is advised to move along. If you act contrary to this warning, you will have to pay a penalty. Children must pay [number missing] silver coins. Slaves will be beaten on their behinds

Exactly how literal a translation we do not know!

One can see how deep the ash was in the town by this first floor window which

Window ash mark

still contains solid ash in the grill.

On the Decumanus Maximus is an advert for a wine shop with the original price list still on the wall. The sign reads “ad cumanas” which apparently means “go to the sign of the bowls”

Wine Shop SignWine Shop Price List 

Closer examination of the price

Wine Costs

list shows the actual wine costs.

Nearby to the right of the House of Neptune and Amphitrite, (also known as the House of the Neptune Mosaic because of this mosaic

Neptune Mosaic

and also a rather fine frieze)

Neptune House Nicje

is a wine shop with original amphora

Wine Shop Amphora

and partitions inside which survived the eruption.

Wine Shap partition

We do not know if it was the wine shop referred to in the street sign.

Off the Decumanus Maximus is a rather nice Domus (house) called the House of the Black Hall (Casa del Salone Nero) which must have been a cool haven off the street back in the AD70s.

Part of the original charred door and the lintel above it still remains.

Salone Nero Birnt Door

This was a large house

with a reasonably large peristyle

Nero House Peristyle

with a fountain in the middle.

Nero House Peristyle 2

The house gets its name from a black room (fourth style)

Nero Room

with a rather nice floor. The general rule was nice floor = plain walls; flash walls = plain floor. The floor does not look much when it is dusty but clean it and (wow!). It is made up of lots of different and some quite rare marble.

Nero Floor Tile

Not all houses were small. One house (The House of Argus) has a very large peristyle that has now been replanted with apple trees. It is quite astonishing to come across a house of this size within the middle of a small town.

Large Peristyle 

On the Decumanus Maximus is The House of the Augustan Cult

Augustali Inscription

with an original plaque inside

Seat of the Augustan Cult

plus some rather nice frescoes

Caretakers windowBed were caretaker died

and to the right of the frescos is the caretakers room (window shown above left – the perspex is not original!) and inside the bed he was sleeping on when he died in the eruption – his bones being clearly visible.

The Samnite House has a nice atrium but this shows a couple of developments in atrium design. Because of restricted

Samnite House Attrium

house plot size, the atrium is virtually on the street i.e you come in the front door off the street and almost immediately you are in the atrium which is of Tuscan design – this means that there is an

Samnite House Tuscan Roof

inward sloping roof supported by beams with gargoyles around

Tuscan Gargoyles

the opening. The compluvian is open to the air (the roof you can see in the picture is a modern addition for preservation reasons) and rain water discharges into the impluvium below.There are solid beams supporting the atrium roof. Some of the walls in this house show evidence of ancient (and possibly some modern) repair.

Repair work More Repair

In a side room there are a few frescoes

Detail Samnite House

and here are a couple of fine

Detail Samnite House-1

details from them.

There is a lot more on the site which we saw including the Male and Female Baths, the Palaestra and numerous other buildings – far too much to include here.

To finish Herculaneum, two rather nice frescoes which I show just because they are nice.

Nice 2 Nice 1

The bottom one particularly impresses us with the way that you can see through the drawn glass.


Not too far away at Boscoreale is what used to be a farm house in the middle of the countryside – La Villa Regina. Now it is in the middle of

La Villa Regina 1

an estate of council flats and was discovered (1977) when the flats were being built. It has been rebuilt and some

La Villa Regina 2

crops planted around it to give an idea of what a farm looked like and how it operated. Within the farm yard are a number of Dolio which are very large amphora (apparently about 600ltrs volume)

Dolio 1st C BC

used for storing the olive oil, wine, wheat etc produced by the farm. These were quite valuable to farmers and often repaired when they were broken or damaged.

Unfortunately, the authorities have closed it indefinitely “for repairs” but there is no sign of repairs taking place, only grumpy curators who seem to be annoyed that you have come to the site and the attached museum – L’Antiquarium. Click here to go to the Google sites pages on the Villa Regina and see pictures of the inside.

Original Tree Roots

Outside of the museum are some tree roots from the time of the eruption – strange to touch a tree over 2000 years old.

Inside the museum are a large variety of items related to the eruption period (tools, food, everyday items) and it could be interesting had the museum taken more care on labelling its exhibits (and the staff tried to look welcoming rather than scowl the whole time). Being the only visitors there that day, we had a good chance to walk around. Amongst the more unusual exhibits was

Doormouse 2

this Dormouse Pot – used for keeping and breading dormice. Dormice were a delicacy and often eaten as part of a first course.

Doormouse 1

Inside the pot is a pouch for food and a ramp around the inside for the mice to get up and down the pot to their food.

Recipe for cooked dormouse:

Skin then stuff them with a mixture of pork mince, dormouse meat trimmings, pepper, nuts, asafoetida (a sort of giant fennel aka devil’s dung or stinking gum) and garum (a very pungent fish sauce) and then roast – two per person.

Of somewhat macabre interest are

Dead Pig

a number of bodies recovered from the Pompeii area. Including this pig

Chained Dog  

a dog which was chained up at the time of the eruption

Body Body-1 Body 3 Body 4  

and four bodies whose positions tell their story. Note the clothes on the body in the top photograph.

The morning was very interesting, the afternoon less so, simply because of the attitude of the museum.