Saturday, July 17, 2010





POMPEII REDUX


Yesterday we returned for a second visit to Pompeii. It seems that vines are growing there again after 2,000 years.


I mentioned earlier the work of American academic Wilhemina Jashemski, who perfected the technique of making plaster casts of root cavities and thereby dramatically altered our understanding of the landscape of Pompeii. We now know that market gardens were planted in many places in Pompeii, right there in the middle of this bustling little commercial center. Market gardens and vineyards. Lots of vineyards.


So in 1996 the Superintendency of Pompeii, the agency which oversees the site, gave the word to Mastroberardino, a large and well respected winery with headquarters near Salerno, to bring wine back to Pompeii. The natural way.


So detailed were Jashemski’s castings that we can see not only the pattern of plantings of vines but also the little corridors between blocks of vines, just as the Roman writers Columella and Pliny the Elder recommend, and the vine stakes used to trellis the vines. Not to speak of the fruit trees which were interplanted in the vineyard, again, just as the ancient agronomists recommend. We even have a pretty good idea of the types of wood used as vinestakes (mostly chestnut) and the canes used to bring the cordons across from one stake to another. Larger post holes indicate where taller pergolas were created as, for example, they often were over the lanes to take advantage of this space (the lanes were needed to move farm equipment about) but also, I believe, just to create a pleasant, green, shady place to stroll. For all their practicality the Romans had a soft spot for nature and they loved to create beautiful landscapes where they could enjoy a pleasant walk or dinner. So do their modern descendants. One of my favorite meals in Italy was in the little town of Chiusi in Umbria at a small trattoria where we were seated under just such a pergola out back. The food was good, but it tasted even better as we listened to the buzzing of bees and chattering of birds, felt the cool breeze and watched mamma birds tending their chicks in the nests they had nestled into the vines.


But the experts at Mastroberardino were in a bit of a quandry: what to plant? We know that the wild grapevine, Vitis vinifera silvestris, has grown all over Italy for millennia, but cultivated forms of Vitis vinifera vinifera were probably introduced accidentally (humans create a lot of garbage, including grape pips and vines used as dunnage, packing material for ships) by Mycenaean Greeks as well as Phoenicians, Etruscans (maybe), and archaic Greeks. And scholars for years have debated which ones of the 10,000 plus varieties of the cultured plant are original. That’s not an easy thing, since the vine is so adaptable and since propagation of cultured vines is by cloning, that is, by rooted cuttings.


The linguists have had their say, as usual, trying to recreate history from tthe dialectal forms of vine names. For example, Greco is supposed by them to be the Aminea Gemina so famous in antiquity, responsible for Falernian, the Chateau d’Yquem of its day; Fiano is supposedly the ancient Appiano, recommended for the raisin wine that Italians still love, and the name Aglianico is just a deformed version of Hellenico, 'Greekish', underlining its Greek roots.


The problem is that it’s darned hard to recreate ancient history from historical records, scanty as they are, and trying to do so from linguistic records, in my opinion, is a fool’s errand. Perhaps it is significant that the vaunted Aglianico, which I was really pulling for because I love that little grape, has been shown by new DNA testing to be about as far from modern Greek varietals as is possible.


In the event the winery decided to go with Piedirosso and Sciascinoso, two workhorse grapes here in the south which are dependable if uninspiring producers. The first harvest was in 1999 and the first bottling appeared in 2001 and was named “Villa dei Misteri” after the famous villa right outside the Herculaneum gate of the city. Quantities were so small that they were reserved exclusively for the bigwigs, but production has increased since then, so someday I might bag a bottle. They still hover around $85 per bottle, way out of my price range.


In the meantime, I needed to see the main sites in the city where vineyards are attested. The biggest was the so-called Forum Boarium, once thought to be a cattle market, which we now know was nothing of the sort; given the right context, we can clearly see the little pressroom facilities where the wine was made on site and the two outdoor pergolas, complete with triclinia or dining couches, which could be rented by those going to or leaving the nearby amphitheatre for private dining (How about a nice Fiano with that slaughter, gentlemen?).


Unfortunately, when I arrived I confronted another of the unwritten rules of Italian bureacracy. Let’s review, kids:


1. It’s always open...but just not today!

2. It’s all open...except the part that you really want to see.


Number two is the reason I had to return in the first place; some of the sites I most needed to see were off limits on our first visit. No problem, I was told I just needed to procure some kind of documentation to establish my bona fides as a legitimate researcher and present it to the Director of the site. That’s reasonable, we’re loving some of these ancient sites to death with our tramplimg, pawing, even our hot humid breath, and conservation is a huge issue in Italy. Plus, these were working vineyards and there’s no end to the unwitting mischief tourists can do there. So my friends at the University of Salerno were nice enough to provide me with the proper documents, and Sandy and I were off bright and early to try to beat the brutal heat of midday. That’s when I confronted Unwritten Rule Number 3: The Director/Superintendant/Custodian (you fill in the bureaucrat) is always delighted to see you...but not now! The Director, it seems, didn’t bother to show up for work until noon. Which in Neapolitan terms means 1-1:30.


Fortunately, I remembered trusty Rule Number 4, given to me courtesy of a dear friend who shall remain anonymous: “It is strictly forbidden! But that's just a formality.” I’m not admitting anything, I’m just sayin’.


Two of the sites were cauponae, ancient Holiday Inns where you could get a room, a hot meal, some wine, and some nighttime companionship. One of my favorite tombstones from Pompeii depicts a dialogue between an innkeeper and a very cheap guest who spends the equivalent of $8.00 for a prostitute (bet she was a looker, don’t you?) but begrudges fifty cents for hay for his poor old mule. These inns actually had small working vineyards on premises to produce some of the wine they sold. Stamps on the wine jugs found on site show they also had to bring in more wine from local negociants, but it still must have helped the bottom line to cut out the middleman for some of the wares.


To me the most affecting of all the sites is the Garden of the Fugitives, a beautiful atrium house with a nice peristyle and a large garden out back that included a sizeable vineyard with a nice central pergola which Mastroberardino has recreated. The vineyard is enclosed by a wall, as are all the others, so the Roman urban vineyards are what the French would call clos, walled plots. And there at the very back of the garden, huddled up against the wall where they could run no further, are the plaster casts of the thirteen poor souls who tried their best to escape the searing gases of a pyroclastic surge and could not. From their position at the southern end of the clos, it is perfectly obvious that they had seen that black wall of death rushing down the mountain at 65 miles per hour, pregnant with the deadly gases that would tear at their lungs and snuff out their lives. Men, women, small children, all huddled together, the agony of their demises clearly evident in their tortured poses and even some facial expressions. What terror must those poor little ones have been undergoing in those awful moments?


Not fifteen feet away are the glorious vines basking in the warm sun of the Mezzogiorno. Vines and humans perished together on that horrible day in 79 CE. But because of the same kinds of plaster casts, we can now, in a sense, resurrect the vines and, sadly, we cannot the people who planted and tended and enjoyed them. I think of those vines as a beautiful monument to the anonymous lives and deaths of those Pompeiian citizens. And this is holy ground.

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