A tale of two lost cities

Last summer I spent some time in Campania, and my family took the chance to visit a few places we had not seen before.

My wife had visited it, but I had never been to the Reggia di Caserta, the largest (former) royal residence in the world, which you may remember as being the background for the royal palace in Star Wars: Episode I.

Charles VII of Naples wanted to build a big palace to make it the administrative center of his kingdom. But history is what happens while you’re making other plans, and by the time the palace was finished, Italy’s unification was underway, and the center of the state would move to Rome.

It is, anyway, a stunning sight, and I highly recommend it. But I did not want to talk about this in particular.

Lost and found and lost again

We visited the archeological site of Pompeii, a populous Roman city which was thriving in the first century. Alas, history had other ideas.

The eruption of mount Vesuvius covered the city in volcanic ash, and also destroyed the nearby Herculaneum§.

We know a lot about this, because Pliny the Younger saw the thing with his own eyes, and wrote about it. After the disaster there was some feeble attempt to recover some stuff, and there was some looting, and the Romans gave up on excavating meters and meters of ash, and over the centuries we forgot where the city was.

I can hear you, Dear Reader, “How do you lose a city? Just look at a freaking map!“. But you see, there were not a lot of maps. And the topological references weren’t there either. The coast had shifted by kilometers, and even the layer of ash had been covered by dirt and vegetation.

The city was buried somewhere, but people had no clue, nor interest, in looking for it. Until they did, in the 18th century. First we found Herculaneum by mining stone, and then we found Pompeii, covered by the ash.

We were lucky because the ash preserved a lot of the city, including paintings, mosaics, statues, buildings and more.

If you visit Pompeii you have the surreal feeling of walking in a theme park, because there is just so much stuff. You will see the bakeries, the eateries, the public baths, the tanneries. You will see painting of gods, advertisement, political campaigning. The brothels and the temples and the places of government§.

And of course, you will see the calques of the people, and animals, who died there. You see, before the ashes arrived the people and animals were killed by fumes, and their muscles contracted and kept them in position as the ashes fell over them.

It must have been a terrible way to die§, and the cast of the dog trying to free itself has made an everlasting effect on me when I first saw it as a kid.

And yeah, the casts. When Giuseppe Fiorelli started working on the city in the 19th century, he noticed they were hitting empty cavities left by the (long disappeared) bodies. He had the brilliant idea of using liquid plaster to fill such cavities, and then excavate the casts and look at them.

The plaster casts are incredible, the images of people covering their head, hugging each other, cowering in obvious fear. I am moved a bit even as I write. A write described as

The pain of death that gets back body and image

Luigi Settembrini

The casts are an incredible window on the past, but Fiorelli was not foreseeing enough: we have lost many of them due to bombings in WWII. And he had not accounted for the fact that gypsum will, over time, fall apart on its own. So we have lost many of the casts, and this time it will be forever.

Modern archeology is attempting to use resin for the same process. Resin has a big advantage: you get to see the bones inside. For some reason, I don’t like this, it feel indiscreet to look inside people..

The unseen city

Both me and my wife had seen Pompeii already, and yet neither of us did.

You see, Pompeii has not been fully excavated yet. As far as I understand, it is a bit of a dream for an archeologist to be able to participate in the ongoing excavation. But modern archeology moves slowly to preserve as much as possible§, I may not be alive by the time they are finished.

And even if I was around. I’d likely still not see it all. There is not enough personnel to monitor a site this big, so only parts of the city are accessible every day. One day you may see something, one day you may see something else. And maybe one day we’ll get another bombing, and something will be gone forever.

Something lost for centuries right at our fingertips, and yet impossible to see.

The temples nobody knows

Another place we got to visit was Paestum, which was also a Roman city. Except of course before that it was a Lucanian city. And before that a Greek city, named Poseidonia, after the God of the sea, as it had an enviable position close to it, and was an important commerce center. Alas, this was not to last.

The delta of the nearby river clogged up, this in turn made the river stagnate, and the nearby land become swampy. With swamps came mosquitoes, and with mosquitoes came malaria. The city became a bad place to live, and it slowly depopulated until it was completely abandoned in the middle ages.

And so, once more, we lost a city.

William Stanley Haseltine - Temple of "Ceres" at Paestum - Walters 371557
William Stanley Haseltine – Temple of “Ceres” at Paestum, 19th century. Notice the swampiness.

I can hear you Dear Reader, you are thinking: “I’m literally looking at a picture of the temple, we obviously did not lose it!”

Sure, but you have to understand: that’s just a temple. Sure, people who lived in the area may know that there were some ruins there, but they didn’t know what it was, and the collective consciousness had forgotten about it. Some people may encounter the name in ancient texts, and would identify it with the nearby Agropoli.

It’s hard to imagine that some knowledge may just disappear, in an era where you can lookup any random name on the internet, but forgetting was the norm.

The historian Alessandro Barbero often says this about antiquity: when an historian or a teacher speaks about antiquity, we have the feeling of knowing everything about it. In reality, we know almost nothing about it.

Historians in pre-modern times wrote some stuff down, but not much, most was lost, and some time they just made shit up. Someone invented a princess Scota of Egyptian origin to explain the latin name Scotia for Scotland, and this became accepted knowledge for a few centuries.

Charlemagne founded the Scola Palatinae to standardize the bible, gave it money to fund monks, its own herd of sheep to make parchment… and they did a massive production of 2 bibles per year. For centuries knowledge was rare.

But today.. this is such an incredible site, and still, it is kind of forgotten. Did you know about it? I was lucky enough to visit it while in high school, but my wife, who has travelled Italy far more than me, had never even heard of it.

Apparently this place is home to 2 overlapping UNESCO sites. It’s a stunning area where you can see multiple Greek temples intermixed with Roman architecture. There are Lucanian tombs and paintings (these are the folks who invented the -Roman circus, tho you may never had heard of them). The city is also where the largest surviving Greek painting was found.

It’s a must see in my opinion (although the museum is under renovation), and I hope it does not get forgotten.

A city is not dead while its name is still spoken§

I worry sometimes about our age. We have access to so much information that it becomes really, really hard to focus. In a sense, we live in the opposite hell of the medieval people.

Any historical site needs to fight for relevance, or it will be forgotten. People used to travel in their own country before going abroad, but they don’t anymore, so you don’t get “visited by default” these days.

This won’t be a problem for Florence or Stonehenge but what will happen with the minor sites?

And what will happen with non-historical sites? Small towns are already depopulating and being abandoned in Europe and elsewhere. In the last 20 years large urban population doubled, in part because of population growth, and in part because people no longer want to live in a small village with one church (or temple).

There are towns becoming forgotten right now, I suppose this is normal, but it is, in some sense, humbling. We will be forgotten too, and I am sometimes saddened that I can’t remember my grand-grandparents’ names§, and perhaps it is necessary to lose sight of old things to focus on the new ones.

Still, I hope I don’t get forgotten too soon.

On Culture, Food, Games

Today, I realized I have lived abroad most of my adult life. Yet, I feel as much Italian as I always did.

Culture, in the sense of one’s heritage, language, customs and so on, is such a weird thing. For example, some things we just consider old, or passé, while some others are traditions.

Nobody gives a damn about last year’s clothes, but people will happily wear traditional clothing for special occasions, even tho there’s nothing that makes them particularly different from the clothes of a hundred year before or after.

But some things get frozen in time, and become a paradigm of something, and then people start considering them as the real thing, and deviations are bad.

As an Italian, I see this all the time with food. As most of my countrymen I will be annoyed if I order a carbonara and you put cream and dill in it§. I will cringe at some of the ready-made “italian” monstrosities sold in foreign supermarkets, and of course there’s the Japanese spaghetti napolitana (with ketchup and wurstel) which could make people from Naples punch you§.

But beyond the immediate disapproval, I’m open minded enough to understand that it does not matter. Sure, I would prefer if people named things differently to avoid confusion, but I also understand that our strictness with food is a very modern development. Until a few years ago nobody would give a shit if you made carbonara using pancetta rather than guanciale, for example. The modern pizza napoletana has as little to do with the pizza from 100 years ago as an american deep dish thing, but now the recipe has been written down, and it can’t be changed anymore.

So I see this crystallization process happen in real time, and I find it so, so interesting. But change will happen, anyway.

My kids are italo-hungarian, and mostly I like to think of them as european but it is clear their culture will be mostly magyar. They’ll think it’s normal to take off shoes when you enter someone else’s house§, or that it’s reasonable to have only sweets for a meal§. At the same time they also expect latte e biscotti for breakfast rather than eggs and sausage. And hungarians have decent pizza and coffee these days. The kids will be their own culture and will be alright.

Food is a clear story of homogenization and globalization too: every big city has access to decent curry or sushi these days, if not khinkali and injera§. Yet a bunch of older hyperlocal recipes are disappearing. I have never seen any Italian pastry place make sweet ricotta ravioli as my grandma made them.

And the rest of culture is the same. Probably these days a youngster in Brazil has more shared culture with one in Norway than 20 years ago. They played similar videogames, watched the same blockbusters, have similar comics and books available, hanged around in the same online communities. They may have enjoyed different porn, tho.

But I would guess, when they were little, they played different games, cause children games are not as heavily internationalized yet. But careful, those are being homogenized too. I remember my dad teaching some of the games they played as kids, such as Lippa. I have never seen anyone else play it.

Hungarians kids play a shitty version of hide and seek where you hide and someone finds you and that’s it, you just take turns counting. Italian kids play a hyper-competitive version where once you spot the other person you have to race them to a base point and that captures them, but then the last one to be found still has a chance to free all the others, forcing the counting person to go again. You also have cheats and counter-cheats, such as standing behind a person to touch the base as soon as they are done counting, or having special rhymes that preventively capture those standing behind you. It’s an arms race. It’s a much more entertaining game, and I hope it survives for the sake of future children.

Anyway, culture is drifting, and becoming less diverse overall by becoming more diverse in every single place. Which begs the question: should we care? Should we make an effort to preserve some of our ancestors’ culture, and pass it on to the newest generations? Should we reject novelty? I am pretty sure the last question’s answer is a resounding no, but I think the others are tricky.

For example, should I teach my kids the sort of games my father thought me? What for? Some them made sense in a place when urbanization was mild and dirt roads where more common than asphalt, what would my kids do with them?

I think in a sense it’s always worth preserving something. But we all have limited learning capacity, teaching my kids the child rhymes I knew as a kid would come at the expense of not teaching them something else, and I mean, why would I chose 70 year old italian children rhymes?

When you are physically detached from your parent culture, you feel some need to stick to it, I think. This might be why the USA has this thing of saying “I’m Italian/Irish/Whatever!” meaning “some of my ancestors ended up on these shores coming from there!“. Immigrants felt nostalgia, and passed it on.

It’s also worth considering what is the culture you want to keep or ditch. Italy has a traditionally macho culture, which probably we should not keep in the next century. But it also used to have a very welcoming culture, which we should strive to keep. Hungarians are not particularly friendly and extrovert, we should probably change that. But they also are not very inclined to damage public property, which is good. At the same time, everytime we harmonize the behaviour towards some average expectation of “good” we’re losing something. But I still I hope we won’t have infibulation and the death penalty anywhere in the future. I am not sure what we should do with holy mountains forbidden to women but I have to say, I personally hope they stick around, because I like weird things.

Finally, it’s probably worth thinking about what happens when a culture buds off another one, and becomes separate, and you should stop evaluating it in the same terms. Italian poetry is not read in terms of Latin forms. Espresso should not be considered a bad arab coffee, nor italians should complain about third generation coffee being hipster bait. When does that the split happen? Does it even matter? I have a whole different post to write on english language haiku vs japanese haiku.

I am not sure there’s an answer to any of the questions here, I’ll just keep doing what I feel is best, every day, cause that’s the best I can do. Maybe everyone.

I did build my kids a rubber band gun, as my father did for me. Because it was fun, and because I loved my father and I miss him a lot. Maybe that’s why people stick to their culture, because they loved their parents, and grandparents, and wish they were with them.

Go tell your parents you love them, and your children too. That is some culture all mankind seem to share. And humbly, I think we should keep it.