Today is our last day in Italy – tomorrow return to the green valleys. Big Boy T (7 years and 3/7) and I went to visit the archaeological site of Herculaneum. It is extremely impressive. Visiting the site is also a pleasantly relaxing experience (at least at this period of the year) – fewer injuries caused by impatient elbows today.
Herculaneum was covered by pyroclastic flows, up to 16 metres in depth, when Vesuvius erupted in August 79 CE. Archaeologists, starting in the 18th century, had to dig through the material left by the volcano to get to the remains. Unlike at Pompeii, they discovered buildings with upper levels still in place and numerous organic remains (wooden staircases, papyrus rolls, albeit rather burnt, amazing wooden doors, etc.).
My highlight of the day was the House of Neptune and Amphitrite, named in reference to a glass mosaic representing Neptune abducting his future wife Amphitrite. The central mosaic is of course beautiful, but what really caught my attention are the side mosaic, representing a hunt, and the side frescoes, representing trees and other plants. As I am currently working on a book on ancient botany, I was really looking forward to seeing some of the famous nature frescoes of Pompeii in situ, to get a sense of where they fitted in their respective houses (spoiler alert: the original frescoes and paintings are no longer in place at Pompeii and Herculaneum – they are in the archaeological museum of Naples).
Unfortunately, the houses with the most beautiful painted garden scenes were closed for repair at Pompeii. I was starting to fear I would leave Italy without seeing a single painted tree! And here I was, admiring – at the same time – a beautiful mosaic with a stag and a beautiful fresco with palm trees.
Readers of my blogs may know that I have a slight obsession for deer, which is the animal sacred to my favourite ancient Goddess: Artemis/Diana. The deer represented here is a fallow deer, recognisable because of his spotty skin and palmate antlers. It is being hunted by a dog, but as it is bounding ‘out of the frame’, I am hopeful for it. The painted landscape that welcomes him on the next wall is a palm-tree oasis at sunset (this is how I choose to interpret the colours).
There is of course a link between the central mosaic, representing the rape of Amphitrite, and the hunt. For reasons of propriety, the ancients did not depict the rape as what it was – a sexual act – but alluded to it through depictions of animals chasing others. Although I am no art historian, I also believe the palm trees fit in perfectly with the scene. The Greeks and Romans were very fond of the story of the longing love of the female palm tree for the male one. Here is the version as narrated by the third-century author Florentinus (preserved in the tenth century Geoponica):
One palm loves the other, and loves it bitterly. Indeed the female loves the male, as Florentinus says in his Georgics, and there is no end to her desire until she is in the presence of her beloved. For the tree appears to stoop, and not to carry itself, and ceases to bear fruit. It does not escape the famer’s attention that she is love, but he does not know with which tree. For that reason, he touches many palms and then returns to the lover, and touching her with his hand, she appears to respond as if to a kiss. She indicates the tree that is the object of her desire by nodding her spathes, or as some would say her hands, for she looks towards him and turns herself towards him from her roots upwards, as if in eagerness. And a remedy for her love is found when the farmer touches the male and brings his arms close to the lover, and especially if he brings the flower from the male spathe, and inserts it into the head of the lover. For this soothes her love, and for the rest, the palm becomes resplendent and bears the most beautiful fruit.
With these words, I close my Italian series! I hope you enjoyed it.