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Atlanta Garden Design

Experiencing Landscape: Pompeii

Posted by Author on October 16, 2014 at 10:05 PM

Images: Sam Valentine


On Sunday we were in Pompeii. Many a calamity has happened in the world, but never one that has caused so much entertainment to posterity as this one.


I can't claim those words as mine, but last Sunday I was able to personally experience the frozen, ancient streets of Pompeii. It was German writer Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who made that observation, and now having visited, I find Goethe's words ring with a chilling truth. The infamous Roman town, which once flourished in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, was destroyed and buried by volcanic eruption in the year 79 AD. In a strange twist of fate, the very force that wiped Pompeii off the map also caused its buildings, streets, and even many of its inhabitants to lay in a preserved state until their discovery in the modern era.


Image: Sam Valentine


As you will see by following my next several posts, I just got back from a week-long tour of Italy. In the cities and Tuscan countryside, I toured dozens of villa gardens, Italian piazzas, and other unique environments, but the most compelling landscape may have been Pompeii. I grew up with a insatiable fascination with the town: through its wrenching, tragic destruction and discovery a window through the millennia was allowed.

Images: Mitch Barrie and Nancy Patterson


There were some characteristics of Pompeii that I was anticipating. Every wall, street, and ruin is teeming with character and whispering stories of ancient ways of life. The ruins have held firmly onto their murals and inlaid mosaics. The "Cave Canem" mosaic sat just where I expected it to, serving as a "beware of dog" sign at the entrance to a residence. The large street cobbles proudly exhibited traffic ruts, like a fighter shows his or her scars. One thing I did not expect though, was to connect to the perished Pompeians quite so physically. At several points I looked down with a chill to find my foot inside a depressed, deep-worn footprint along the sidewalks and curbs.


Images: Sam Valentine


In its present form, Pompeii is not tall -- even if it had been, the violent earthquakes that shook the town repeatedly in the years, weeks, and hours leading up to the eruption took it down a notch. What is remarkable, technologically and urbanistically, are the city's dozens of public water fountains. Pompeii had an established system of aqueducts, judiciously valved in a way that is impressive even by modern standards: rather than impose the "watering bans" that gardeners are all too familiar with, Pompeii's various water users were plumbed with built-in hierarchy. During dry periods, the three-part water system would first run dry in the luxurious public bathhouses. If levels continued dropping, private plumbing inside residences would dry up. This strategy ensured that supply to Pompeii's public drinking fountains - most critical and accessible to all citizens - were preserved as long as possible.

Image: BD Photography and Sam Valentine


After seeing Pompeii for myself, I realize that it has all of the beauty and tragedy of a fly stuck in amber. As Goethe alluded to, a visitor to the ruins deals with two strong, competing currents: information and emotion. On one hand, I was impressed by the ancient ways of building, designing, and living. The city (perhaps more so in its ruined state) is rich with character and picturesque beauty. On the other hand, it is impossible to ignore the untold scores of Pompeians who did not make it out of the city with their lives. The environment moves you with emotional force.


Image: Sam Valentine


Categories: Art & Inspiration

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