Shelley’s words never rang truer than when I recently visited Pompeii, in Sicily. In the hot summer air thick with the sound of cicadas, layers of irony were unmistakable. The city walls of that fated city were fashioned from the same volcanic rock from nearby Mt. Vesuvius that would spell the city’s demise, in the final deciding eruption of 79 AD.
I met a traveller from an antique land,
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone,
Stand in the desert. . . . Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal, these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings;
Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Percy Bysshe Shelley 1818
Time shrinks at the rock face so to speak and civilisation’s truth is etched in the blackened rock. Despite the mountains of photographs of Pompeii, I had trawled through over the years, nothing can prepare you for the atmosphere and timelessness of the burnt hulls that were once structures of architectural substance in the city.
Despite the pervasiveness of the ruins, it’s the little details that speak the loudest – like the ancient scratches in the walls lining the streets – early graffitti – and marking the bored musings of an itinerant youth, or the original gouges in the paving stones that yielded to the passing of one too many chariot wheels, or the ancient political slogans on the walls of various houses, demonstrating their owner’s support for various leaders standing for Government positions in the original city.
For me, the experience was enriched by the displays of Polish sculpturer Igor Mitoraj, whose imposing yet fragmented and flawed bronze sculptures, are positioned in various strategic locations throughout the city. These beautifully rendered and gigantic pieces speak loudly of the fragility and ultimate hollow folly of mankind’s endeavours – so symbolic of the ruins and human reminders of the once thriving city.
ContiniArt UK says of the exhibition: “Mitoraj’s sculptures convey a unique juxtaposition of fragility and power, as if their enigmatic presence is suspended between past and present.” I was captivated both by the Mitoraj’s artistry and the sheer brilliance of seeing the pieces framed against the ruins – in a strange way bringing them back to life.
Visiting Pompeii in the baking heat of July is a challenge – there is little shade beyond the few buildings that have been restored. Remarkably water bottles can be replenished at the various and original public water fountains – which still flow today.