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.

Summer readings 2021, part 3

Last summary of my summer readings! Fitting, as the summer is over. I did not read a lot of fiction this summer, but hey, I did read some good stuff!

Hearts of Oak

A short novel by Eddie Robson, which features a weird city made of wood in constant expansion. I would be providing spoilers by adding anything else about the plot, so I will just say that it’s pretty original, and I’ve enjoyed it, after a couple false starts (the beginning is somewhat… dull).

Also, I read the MacMillan paperback edition , which for some reason has the most pleasant paper I’ve experienced in a book, feels like silk. OTOH, the cover has a rubbery feel to it, which is kinda annoying.

7/10: I would like to read more of this universe.

The Flying Sorcerers

An anthology of comic fantasy stories by Peter Haining. I acquired this book, together with The Wizards of Odd, simply because it contained some Terry Pratchett. I sort of hoped the rest of the stories would be good.

On average, they’re not. Neither good, nor fun, and they’re not even about flying sorcerers! Yet, a couple of the stories are quite nice.

5/10: there are probably better anthologies in which to spend your time.

The Wind Through the Keyhole

Ah, yes, a Dark Tower novel. You see, I read the first book of the Dark Tower saga, The Gunslinger, about 30 years ago. Most of it in a single afternoon, while going to the dentist. I loved that strange world, mutants, cowboys, and people singing Hey, Jude. When the Man in Black described the Tower, the Beast§ , the Door, my curiosity reached at the stars.

So I proceeded to read the second book immediately after, and I liked it even more.

And… to read the third book I had to wait years! I found it during a summer vacation, in a small library in a mountain town, and when I got it my father wanted to read it too. He loved it, and so every time a new one came out, I would buy it for him, and read it as soon as he finished it. Fun fact, my father had read The Talisman years before, and I had not.

Me, Sai King, and my dad got to the end of the journey many years later, and while I did not love the last book as much as the earlier ones, it was nice to reach it.

Then The Wind Through the Keyhole came out, again many years later. I didn’t read it for ten years, and I only realize as I write, it’s because my dad had died shortly before it came out.

You see, I never got the chance to buy it for him, so I never read it myself.

As Stephen King says

For longtime readers, this book should be shelved between Wizard and Glass and Wolves of the Calla, which makes it, I suppose, Dark Tower 

and content wise it’s also half way: I loved Wizard and Glass, but didn’t particularly enjoy Wolves of the Calla§. And yet, this book is a much better book than the (chronological) last book, maybe because the author wasn’t so worried about dying before finishing the tale.

Reading this book was like going back to my home town, visiting familiar places, meeting the faces I grew up with. Oh, hey Ronald and Jake!

And the book is good. The plot is good, the structure is good, and for once, the ending is good. Also, as Ronald would have it, it seems I remember the face of my father.

8/10: I really wish there was more of this.

Summer readings 2021, part 2 (Comics)

This summer I finally caught up with a bunch of small comics I had kept on the side, but it would make little sense to discuss all those.

Rather, I’d like to mention a few larger things which had been recommended to me. Spoiler: I liked them all.


This is a completed 12-issue series written by Alan Moore. It’s part of a larger trilogy (with Neonomicon and The Courtyard) of Lovecraft-inspired stories, and I found it quite entertaining. Basically, Moore plays with the Lovecraft material by having the main character encounter various elements of his legendarium, and tying them up with some of Moore’s favorite obsessions.

I think it’s a good comic, but not fantastic, but if you like either Lovecraft, Moore, or In the Mouth of Madness you will enjoy this one too.

6.5/10: bit more than a passing grade, saved by the ending.

Les Indes fourbes

This is a french comic book (and indeed, the only page on wikipedia for it is in french) but I read the version in italian by Rizzoli Lizard (Nelle Indie Perigliose §).

It’s a picaresque graphic novel inspired by an actual novel from the XVII century, and if you like the genre (I do!) you will love it. The plot is good, the characters entertaining, the writing is great.

As a visual thing: this thing is gorgeous. The art is outstanding, rich in details, cleverly structured, and it makes full use of the medium, as a comic book should. Moreover, the edition is a thing of beauty, as a 33.2 x 24.8 (cm) hardcover it might be a bit hard to fit on a shelve, but I’d leave this thing laying around for the sheer joy of looking at it.

9/10: almost perfect.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

This is an odd book, and by the end I enjoyed it but.. I’m unsatisfied. I went into the book expecting to find either a semiserious account of Lovelace & Babbage’s life, or a made up story using them as character.

What the book actually is: a series of episodes, using a cartoon/steampunk/uchronic version of the titular characters, with no actual plot. They’re entertaining, I really like the drawings and I loved the characters, but I’m left wanting more of them.

The other oddity is that each page is about 30% drawings and 70% footnotes explaining them. And each footnote has references to end-of-chapter notes. This is frustrating§ because you have to choose how to read this

  • read comic -> read footnote -> read endnote (requires you to keep a mental stack)
  • read comic -> read footnote; ignore endnotes (never!)
  • read comic -> read footnote; read all endnotes at the end (you will have forgotten what they’re about by the time you read them)

No choice is satisfactory, and I missed the effortless way you can follow up nested footnotes in, say, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

At the end of the book you have some appendixes on various things which I found quite dull, but might be of interest to some people.

So, the book is quite interesting, and if the author decided to actually write a steampunk novel using the characters I would run to buy it; but I got to the end of the book feeling that I had a lot of appetizers, and never got the main meal.

7-/10: could be great, but does not deliver.

Summer readings 2021, part 1 (audiobooks)

It’s been so long since I wrote a blog post, and I’m feeling pretty rusty. But there’s no other way to remember how to do something than practice it, so I’m going to attempt to write a new post every week, until the end of the year.

Anyway, I’m sort of short of arguments, but I was lucky enough to be able to have long holidays this summer, so in the footsteps of more successful writers, I’m going to make a short list of the things I read this summer, in the hope they will be useful to other people. But I read a lot! so I’m going to split it. This is the first instalment, talking about stuff I listened to as audiobooks.

The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger

The humble shipping container might not seem like an interesting topic, but it is! The invention/adoption/perfection of the container changed society in a way that few other things did. For example, a whole category of jobs (dockworkers) has been more or less wiped out. Entire cities that relied on people working on interchange traffic lost their income. Worldwide production chains become possible, which in turn enabled “globalization” and all the good and bad that comes with it.

Plus, the book contains pretty fascinating stories of the people who pioneered this, how they succeeded, how they failed. And of those who resisted or embraced the change. And of course, that marvel of human nature: the standardization committee!

There is something to criticize in the book, and it’s the fact that it is, for all its interesting content, far too rich of details. Honestly, it seems like it could have been 6 or 7 blog posts and still be just as informative.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

I’ve been recommended this book a million times but always put it off. But I recently found out it’s included in the basic Audible membership I have, so I decided to finally listen to it.

Oh, I am so happy I did it. Feynman is hilarious, the list of anecdotes and odd situations which he experience is mindbogglingly, his insights on human nature are pretty enjoyable.

Also, it’s clear he sort of identifies himself as “anti-intellectual” which kinda resonates with my own education, although I think what he really should identify himself as “anti-pomp” (I think he mentions this at some point). It’s easy to mix up the two.

I cannot recommend this book enough. While reading it tho I couldn’t shake the feeling that, had the book been written today, people would have showed up with pitchforks; Feynman is a womanizer of the extreme kind, and plenty of the adventures (e.g. the one that starts with his regular hanging out at some topless diner (!!)) might not mix well with modern sensitivities.

The New Confessions of an Economic Hit Man

This is another of the free books on Audible. The premise is pretty good: a guy who worked for a big corporation tells his story, explaining how there is a corrupt and ever increasing powerful force of “economic hit men”.

Such people in cooperation with the IMF, World Bank, and USAID, manage to bribe, threaten, and coax politicians and government offices from developing countries so that they get loans, the invest money in projects that promise to have grand returns for the population, but end up being realized by the same foreign corporations, which this way manage to syphon back the money, leaving the countries in deeper debt and without having achieved much. Rich people get richer, poor people get poorer, rinse and repeat.

If the people do not cooperate, then “the jackals” enter the scene, and get rid of the non-complying figures through violent means. If that fails too, there’s always war.

This is not a global conspiracy, but a modus operandi that has been initially used by the US and then by other countries, and effectively constitutes a new form of imperialism.

So far, so good. This, is honestly quite familiar to anyone who read a book or newspaper in the last 50 years, but the idea of reading a first person account is intriguing.

Sadly, the book does not hold up. It’s basically a collection of random stories which are so transparently fake that it’s incredible someone thought to write them down. Like, the guy gets recruited by the NSA be a spy. But the NSA is a code-breaking organization, it does not do that?

Then he meets this woman who explains him of the economic hit man concept Then she obviously tells him “if someone does not play by the rule <throat slash sign>“. Other than obvious corniness, I kinda think this gesture was not popular until much more recent times.

Or, the guy shows up after 9/11 in New York, and obviously meets an old muslim dude who gives him life lessons. He goes to Iran, and also meet people who give him life lessons and tell him how the West is killing their traditional Bedouin culture of leaving in the desert, “a true Persian would not allow that“. But Bedouins are like 1% of the population of Iran?

Anyway, you might say, sure, he’s embellished a story, but there will be some meat in it.

Nope, nothing. He spends an inordinate amount of time describing some situations were the US overturned a government, which you can trivially read on wikipedia, and that in all cases do not show the pattern of the countries being highly indebted, or not even match his own timeline (I.e. they predate the existence of IMF/WB). His first example, the one where he “sells his soul for the first time”, is Indonesia, which still has a debt/GDP ratio of 30-40% (compare: Italy has 130%, Germany 80%) and the poverty rate fell from >60% to 15% in the ’80s, after they started to take on debt (yes, correlation is not causation).

The even more embarrassing thing is that examples of the issue that he wants to talk about would be easy to find! He just doesn’t bother!

It’s a terrible book. But, if you never heard of any of this, it might be interesting, and the last part, basically a “what can I do“, is probably valuable. Caveat emptor.