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Episode #061: New Discoveries in Ancient Pompeii

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This week we are taking a trip to somewhere that has captured the imaginations of so many over the centuries. It is the lost city of Pompeii, destroyed by the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79AD. The original (official) excavations of Pompeii began in the 1700s, but this was just the start of the story and today technology and history are combining to help expand our understanding of how people lived in the first century AD and what happened when Vesuvius exploded.

Show notes

Many of us have visited this site or definitely plan to but what you may not know is that the area Vesuvius destroyed extended many kilometers down the Amalfi Coast, so there are many more sites to discover alongside Pompeii itself. Ruins of villas can even be found in the forests and under the sea. In this episode we talk to Danielle Oteri, an art historian with has so much incredible knowledge and insight into the area. She has a unique ability to make history come alive and be more accessible to us. She shares her favorite sites and tips, as well as information about some of the latest news and discoveries about Ancient Pompeii.

What you’ll learn this episode

  1. Pompeians, like people today, enjoyed a bit of fast food. Recently their own version of Pompeii Fried Chicken, complete with frescos of chickens, was un-earthed. Take out and street food would have been for the poorer inhabitants, whereas the wealthiest would have dined lavishly at home, being waited on by servants and very likely slaves (Pompeii was made up pretty much half and half free and enslaved peoples)
  2. Pompeii was the playground for wealthy Romans, but it was also a place with a pretty international culture for the Roman world, including Oscans and people from Africa
  3. As well as fast food, a drink for hardworking Gladiators could be enjoyed at the tavern, known as the Osteria del Gladiatore
  4. During covid, many Italian tourism companies, galleries and museums have upped their game by improving their websites and social media accounts. In particular, the Archaeological Museum of Naples has become fantastic to follow on Instagram as they post their latest discoveries – museoarcheologiconapoli and for Pompeii itself and its associated sites – pompeii_parco_archeologico
  5. The Antiquarium has taken a few knocks over the years. It was nearly destroyed during WW2 and then was damaged so badly in the 1980s Irpinia earthquake that it has been shut ever since then. The project to re-build/re-create came about through covid – creating something positive from this period of the museums being closed and as of 25th January 2021 it has re-openend
  6. At Bacoli, there are the ruins of two villas and a port which are completely submerged underwater, which you visit either by scuba diving or on a glass-bottomed boat trip
  7. Using a guide is invaluable. All guides in the Campania region have to be licensed and are of an incredibly high standard, with most being PHDs. A great resource for guides is www.vesuviusvspompeii.com
  8. Same as today – wealthy people liked to keep up with the latest styles and impress their guests. Signs in some of the villas showed renovations were taking place when Vesuvius blew. Villa Oplontis, for example, had an infinity pool with a sheer drop down to the sea.
  9. The bright colors in the mosaics and frescos themselves were a sign of wealth, as color was exotic and hard to come by
  10. Discoveries made at Villa Oplontis of newly bottled wine and hundreds of pomegranates means that the date widely accepted for the eruption, August 24th, could not be correct because the wine and the pomegranates wouldn’t have been harvested at that time. It was most likely actually in October.
  11. Consider different sites, around Vesuvius, other than Pompeii. If you are short on time, there are smaller sites, which might have less tourist infrastructure, but also way fewer people and are just as interesting – such as Villa San Marco and the Villa Arianna in Castellammare di Stabia or Villa Oplontis at Torre Annunziata

About our guest – Danielle Oteri from Feast on History

danielle oteri feast on history

Danielle Oteri is a writer, art historian and founder of Feast on History a food, wine and art school specializing in Southern Italy. She is passionate about the city of Naples and surrounds and knows it inside out – including where to get the best sfogliatella and life changing pizza.

After visiting her grandmother’s town on the Cilento Coast she was inspired to celebrate her family’s homeland and help others do the same. Feast on History offers immersive culinary, art and wine classes in Italy and now online.

If you’re visiting New York City you can also join Danielle’s company Arthur Avenue Food Tours on a delicious walk through Little Italy.

You can find Danielle on these channels:

Places to visit mentioned in the show

  • Campania – the region in southwestern Italy with Naples, as its regional capital, home to Mount Vesuvius and the Amalfi Coast.
  • Naples Archeological Museum and The Antiquarium – both well worth a visit to get an understanding of not only went on at Pompeii, but how and when the site and various artifacts were unearthed. Highlights include:
    • The Alexandar Mosaic
    • The Secret Cabinet – full of ‘pornographic’ art and curiosities, though in reality included things such as fertility symbols. Locked away for a long time, only deemed viewable by educated men.  Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, the secret room was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s before being finally re-opened in 2000.
  • Herculaneum – the town hit first by Vesuvius’s explosion and where people died the quickest, without warning – such as the ashy rain that fell on Pompeii hours before (though few recognized it as a warning sign)
  • Bacoli – the town that was home to Misenum – the base for one of the great fleets of the early Roman Empire
  • Baia – where ruins of villas and a port can be found under the sea
  • Villa Oplontis – at Torre Annunziata (a town famous for the production of pasta before industrialization) is a site of many recent and important discoveries and is full of frescos, mosaic, and even had its own infinity pool
  • Villa Boscoreale – another site, along with Pompeii and Herculaneum, that was buried by the Vesuvius eruption
  • Sarno – the town where most of those who escaped Pompeii went to
  • Castellammare di Stabia – includes two great sites to visit:
    • Villa San Marco
    • Villa Arianna
  • Paestum – on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea, the town is the site of some of the best-preserved and important Ancient Greek ruins in the world
  • Montevergine – Each year transgender people make a pilgrimage on 3rd Feb to Montevergine, considering the Black Madonna as their protector. The Madonna of Montevergine is thought to have been a Patron of LGBTQ people since medieval times and the church is built on the former site of a temple to the mother goddess Cybele
  • Positano – known for its glamour and home to the famous Sirenuse hotel – you can now access a fantastically interesting site under the main church of Santa Maria Assunta
  • Barilla – northern Italy pasta-making town

Resources

  • San Marzano tomatoes – the region is famous for its tomatoes, thought to be made more delicious by the volcanic soil
  • Plinya Roman author, naturalist and naval and army commander of the early Roman Empire
  • Amphorae ancient terracotta wine shipping vessels
  • Elena Ferrante – a pseudonymous Italian novelist with many books set in Naples. Ferrante has kept her identity secret since the 1992 publication of her first novel
  • Oscan – pre-Roman natives of the land of central Italy
  • House of Bourbon – a European dynasty of French origin. By the 18th century, members of the Spanish Bourbon dynasty held thrones in Spain, Naples, Sicily, and Parma.
  • Irpinia earthquake – a major earthquake in 1980 in which many historical buildings were left in ruins
  • Circumvesuviana – the commuter train that takes you to go to Naples on which Pompeii is a stop
  • Sophia Loren – (born Sofia Villani Scicolone in Rome in 1934) is an actress and was seen as the epitome of Italian glamor in the 1960s.

Resources from Untold Italy

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Transcript

Prefer to read along as you listen? You can download a PDF version of the full transcript of this episode.

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