Excavations began at Herculaneum in the 18th century and continue to this day, with the fairly recent discovery of a beached boat full of desperate souls trying to make an escape by sea. The archaeological remains of Herculaneum, the Scavi di Ercolano (Corso Resina; http://ercolano.beniculturali.it/), give the unsettling impression not of a ruin but of a ghost town from which residents have only recently walked away.
The excavated area stretches from the Decumanus Maximus (the town’s main street) to what was once the shoreline (now a kilometer to the west); the rest of the Roman town remains inaccessible beneath the buildings of modern Ercolano.
Elegant mosaics of fish, dolphins, and other sea creatures decorate the Thermal Baths, with several entrances. The men’s section, the Terme Maschili, has an abundance of practical facilities include a latrine, benches, and shelves for stashing sandals and personal effects. In the Terme Feminili, a mosaic of a naked Triton decorates the floor of the changing rooms.
The Casa del Tramezzo di Legno (House of the Wooden Partition), with its perfect facade, is named for a well-preserved wooden screen that separated the atrium from the tablium, a little room that served as an office.
The Casa a Graticcio (House of the Latticework) is one of the very few examples of working-class housing that has survived from antiquity; the name-giving lattices, though cheaply made of interwoven cane and plaster, are remarkably well preserved.
The Casa del Mosaico di Nettuno e Anfitrite (House of the Neptune and Anfitritis Mosaic) is so called for its bright blue mosaic of the sea god and his nymph. Goods still line the shelves of the adjoining shop.
The Casa dei Cervi (House of the Stags) was one of the most elegant houses in town, with terraces and porticos overlooking the sea. Decorations say much about its fun-loving inhabitants: Frescoes depict cheerful and playful cherubs, while courtyards were filled with statues of drunken satyrs and a drunken, peering Hercules. The house is named for a statue of dogs attacking a pair of innocent, noble-looking deer, perhaps a commentary on the cutthroat politics and social echelons of the Roman world.
Among the other elegant showplaces with seaside addresses is the Villa dei Papiri, so called because of the 1,000-odd badly charred papyrus scrolls (now in the library of the Palazzo Reale in Naples) that were revealed during excavations. The villa also yielded a treasure trove of nearly 90 magnificent bronze and marble sculptures, Roman copies of Greek originals now housed in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples.
Italy’s most famous archaeological site is the Disneyland of the ancient world. Not that there’s anything shallow or ersatz about the extensive excavations of this town on the Bay of Naples where life stopped so abruptly on August 24, a.d. 79. It’s just that no other ancient town has been brought to light so completely, providing an opportunity to step into a world locked in an ancient time. The 30 feet of volcanic ash with which Vesuvius buried the city preserved 44 hectares (109 acres) of shops, civic buildings, and private houses. Over the past century archaeologists have painstakingly uncovered the town, and the ruins provide the vicarious thrill of sharing space with 35,000 residents of a lively, ancient Roman port. Pompeii covers a large area with a lot to see, so try to be selective. Note that many of the streets run through little more than stone foundations, and although wandering the site is a magical experience, ruin-fatigue can set in by the end of a frenetic day of sightseeing. Also keep in mind that even some of the best-known buildings might be temporarily closed off to the public without notice or explanation.
Most visitors come to the Scavi di Pompeii, Via Villa dei Misteri 1 (www.pompeiisites.org; tel. 081-8610744), the best-preserved 2,000-year-old ruins in Europe, on a day trip from Naples or Sorrento (allow at least 4 hr. for even a superficial visit to the archaeological site).
Pompeii was a workaday town, and what stands out amid the ruins is a remarkable evocation of everyday life—streets, shops, bakeries, brothels, baths. The first thing you’ll notice is the typical Roman plan of gridlike streets, on which stepping stones appear at every intersection. These were laid down to allow residents to cross the pavement even when the streets were being flushed with water, as they were at least once a day. Raised sidewalks conceal water and sewage pipes.
In the center of town is the Forum (Foro), the small marketplace that had been severely damaged in an earthquake 16 years before the eruption of Vesuvius and hadn’t been repaired when the final destruction came. Surrounding the Forum are the basilica (the city’s largest single structure), a law court with a floor plan later adopted by Christian churches, along with the name; the Temple of Apollo (Tempio di Apollo), and the Temple of Jupiter (Tempio di Giove). A little farther west is the Terme Stabian (Baths), where some plaster casts of Vesuvius’s victims have been preserved. The city’s bathhouses are among the finest to survive from antiquity. Vividly colored frescoes depicting graphic sex acts in one of them are the subject of ongoing controversy: Were they meant to advertise sexual services available on the upper floors or were they simply amusing decorations?
Unlike Herculaneum, with its seafront district of lavish villas, Pompeii was a proletariat town, and the wealthy lived among the working classes. Their houses are interspersed with shops (which were often combined with dwellings) all over town.
Walk north along the Via di Mercurio to see some of Pompeii’s most famous villas: The Casa del Poeta Tragico (House of the Tragic Poet) contains some eye-catching mosaics, notably the CAVE CANEM (“Beware of the Dog”) design by the main entrance. The most elegant patrician villa, the House of the Vettii (Casa dei Vettii), was the ultimate bachelor pad, the home of wealthy merchants, the Vettii brothers. The huge phallus resting on a pair of scales at the entrance was not intended as a come-hither for female guests but was a sign of good fortune—which the black-and-red Pompeian dining room with its frescoes of delicate cupids and colonnaded garden show the brothers had plenty of.
The House of the Faun (Casa del Fauno) is ancient proof that money and good taste can go together. Two of the great treasures of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples come from this huge, 2,500 sq. m (27,000 sq.-ft.) spread: a bronze statue of a dancing faun and the much-celebrated “Battle of Alexander the Great.”
A layer of ash ensured that the House of the Mysteries (Villa dei Misteri), near the Porto Ercolano, just outside the walls (go along Viale alla Villa dei Misteri), retained its remarkable frescoes. Set against a background of a deep hue that’s come to be known as Pompeian red, figures are shown going through some sort of elaborate rituals that, scholars argue, might be preparations for a wedding or initiation into a sect of Dionysus (Bacchus), one of the cults that flourished in Roman times. The paintings are remarkably clear, bright, and richly colored after all these years.
Walking to the eastern side of Pompeii from the Porta Marina, you’ll pass the 5th-century B.C. Teatro Grande, well-preserved and still used for performances today. Continue west on the Via dell’Abbondanza, passing the Fullonica Stephanus (a laundry with a large tiered washtub); and the Casa della Venere in Conchiglia (House of the Venus in a Shell), named after the curious painting on its back wall. At the far western end of the town lies the Anfiteatro, Italy’s oldest amphitheater, dating from 80 B.C.
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