I was in Naples recently. Wherever I go, I can’t help looking for cemeteries, memorials, memento mori… symbolic reminders of mortality, life, death.
And so that’s a total Mission Possible.
Every community has to bury and mark its dead. From my forebears’ home in Balallan, a tiny spatter of houses on the isle of Lewis, Scotland’s Outer Hebrides, to the sun-tickled olive groves of San Michele in Italy to the paddy fields of Baixa, China… every culture’s ways are there to be found.
Graves, mounds, money-burning, floral tributes, shiny marble, poems, rituals, mark-making. Past, present and I put my money on future. We’re never going to stop marking the mystery of life and death.
Memento mori – or to use the grammatically correct plural – mementos mori – are symbolic reminders of mortality. And I’ve never seen anything more spectacular in this category than the fragmented, crumbling, ossified, sad, triumphant, abandoned, timeless, thrusting, powerful, human, immortal, god-like, crashing, serene sculptures that mark the territory of the lost city of Pompeii. I’m not sure how I got to this age without seeing Pompeii. Maybe, like almost all of Iceland and Manhattan, it seemed too surreal to be real. It was too bizarre to find it visible and almost touchable from the crazy multi-laned highway that ploughs from urban – not urbane – Naples to the cartoon-drawn winding roads of the Amalfi coast. Just sitting there. 16 acres or so of legend. Jam-packed with tourists, shabby pizza (pizze to get another plural right) and souvenir tat.
And yet, in all that context, the site somehow retains some sense of tumbleweed in its dignity and an underlying pulse of life… the incredible street food stands, built into the landscape, just waiting for a festival to kick off and the wine to flow again.
Some sense of heaven, this place. None of the hell the poor inhabitants found themselves in, engulfed by the lava from scarily close Vesuvius almost 2,000 years ago.
And in nearby Naples museum, the ancient artefacts saved from the site, contemporary interpretation, inspired-by artworks.
Again, a reminder. The human condition. It doesn’t change.
We may be living very different day to day lives than in AD79, the last day for the people of Pompeii. We may think we have advanced somehow, with our iPhones and iPads, our nuclear age, space travel. But we have no more control or influence now than they had then over Vesuvius. Still at its mercy. Still in awe. And still none the wiser on the whole great mystery of living and dying.
I felt humbled at the sophistication of their living. The forum for community engagement. The artistic work adorning the walls of social and restive spaces. The ‘HAVE’ welcome inscribed into the paving stones of The House of the Faun – one of the most visited on the site. And today, the poppies growing – as poppies do somehow on sites where lives were lost. Quiet. Space. Air. Softness. This funny thing that is life. And death.