Monday, July 20, 2009

Postcard from Pompeii

by J J Cohen

Immediately after the Leeds conference ended, I departed for Italy. My in-laws live not far from Segni, and I met the rest of my family in Rome to visit with them. We're staying in Colleferro, a town without much history ... but proximity to much that is both historic and beautiful. 

I was invited to give a paper in Salerno six years ago, so I know the Amalfi coast a little bit, but Rome is new to me. My Latin has proven, for once, to be a useful language. Today we visited Pompeii, and the rebuilt ruins far exceeded our expectations: you behold something that seems frozen in time (the moment the town was engulfed in volcanic ash), but which at a longer regard is an accretion of two centuries of wanting the place to seem as if it existed in such timelessness. That is, visiting the ruins is as much about nineteenth-century Grand Tours and desires for a unsullied classical age as it is learning about life in a Roman seaside city. And of course this city shows (if you look hard enough) its former lives as a Greek, Samnite, Etruscan space -- as an impure, cosmopolitan, ever-changing settlement.

Pictured at left are two aspiring archeologists, who were in bliss as we wandered the ruins. Each would from time to time glance nervously at nearby Vesuvius, to ensure that it wasn't about to erupt again, and turn us into cavities in the ash into which future explorers would pour plaster to create an unwilling memento mori.


Eva said...

Did you know that Segni used to have a Jewish quarter (Via della Giudea, recognisable by the telltale horseshoe loop shape of a miniature ghetto). Di Segni being a common Jewish surname in Rome (name of the present chief Rabbi).

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Clearly my in-laws are bringing the Jewish population back to Segni! Thanks for that comment, Eva. I'll only add that we were saddened by the number of swastikas we spotted in this beautiful mountain town.