Pompeii shows a Roman smooch for Valentine’s Day

The lava may have cooled 2,000 years ago but Pompeii is a hot destination this Valentine's day with a special opening of the exceptionally preserved House of the Chaste Lovers.

Pompeii shows a Roman smooch for Valentine's Day
A fresco in the House of the Chaste Lovers at Pompeii. Photo: Eliano Imperato/AFP

This rich baker's dwelling, complete with garden, stables, mill and a sumptuous fresco of a tender kiss, stands on via dell'Abbondanza, the once-bustling thoroughfare of this ancient Roman city.

It also boasts the grinning skeletons of petrified mules caught in the 79AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

Visitors will be able to snatch a rare glimpse this weekend of the 1500-square metre (16,000 square foot) site.

After February 14th it will close its doors again for a four-year restoration as part of a multi-million euro Pompeii preservation project.

“The complex encapsulates both the beauty and the challenges of Pompeii,” archaeologist Alberta Mattelone, 40, told AFP.

“There is the archaeological heritage – the houses and frescoes – as well as the traces of the eruption, the volcanic deposits. Then there are the conservation problems; roofing, escarpments, preserving the frescoes,” she said.

Ghosts of mules past

The kiss decorates one of the walls of the triclinium, the small dining room where ancient Romans would have lounged on couches to eat and drink.

Whether the menu was cheese and honey or dormice, it will have been accompanied by freshly baked bread.

Next to the triclinium sits the bakery, with its stones used to ground the grain and a large oven where flat, round loaves scored across the top were prepared and sold at a little shop next door.

Just inside the shop's doorway are the scribbled running tabs of customers who still owe the baker money for bread they likely munched on with dried fruits and olives sold at the food stall opposite.

The stone mill was driven by six mules and a donkey kept in the stable – and trapped inside when the molten rock and ash hit.

“They were analysed by an archaeo-zoologist: they suffocated, all apart from one killed by a blow to the head as the building collapsed,” Mattelone said, adding that the unfortunate four-legged creatures were “in an excellent state of conservation”.

Behind the stable lies the House of the Painters at Work, where interior decorators were half-way through sprucing up a room when the volcano erupted, as well as a garden which is being re-created exactly as it was thanks to archaeo-botanists.

The complex was first explored in 1912, unveiling a balcony later damaged by Allied bombs in the Second World War.

It was not until 1982 that serious digs began. They ran until 2004 and the site opened briefly in 2010, only to close again.

'Great impact'

“We are opening it for Saint Valentine's because we wanted the public to be able to get in before we close the site to refurbish the roof and supporting structure,” said Michele Granatiero, 61, the project's head architect.

“It is an opportunity to create an architectural, structural and technological work of great impact,” he said.

Pompeii, the second most visited attraction in Italy after the Colosseum in Rome, with a record 3.2 million visitors in 2016, has been plagued in recent years by a series of collapses due to lack of maintenance and bad weather.

The rusting poles holding up the walls at the House of the Chaste Lovers will be replaced with a few external braces and dozens of underground struts.

Visitors will explore the site from a new raised walkway under an aluminium and plexiglass roof.

Those lucky enough to get in now will tour in groups of up to 20 around an enchanting area with mosaics of coloured marble, storerooms of ceramic pots and frescoes of birds, plants and one of the softest smooches of the Roman era.

By Ella Ide

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Italian archaeologists uncover slave room at Pompeii in ‘rare’ find

Pompeii archaeologists said Saturday they have unearthed the remains of a "slave room" in an exceptionally rare find at a Roman villa destroyed by Mount Vesuvius' eruption nearly 2,000 years ago.

Archaeologists in Pompeii who discovered a room which likely housed slaves. 
Archaeologists said the newly-discovered room in Pompeii likely housed slaves charged with maintaining chariots.  Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The little room with three beds, a ceramic pot and a wooden chest was discovered during a dig at the Villa of Civita Giuliana, a suburban villa just a few hundred metres from the rest of the ancient city.

An almost intact ornate Roman chariot was discovered here at the start of this year, and archaeologists said Saturday that the room likely housed slaves charged with maintaining and prepping the chariot.

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“This is a window into the precarious reality of people who rarely appear in historical sources, written almost exclusively by men belonging to the elite,” said Pompeii’s director general Gabriel Zuchtriegel.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The “unique testimony” into how “the weakest in the ancient society lived… is certainly one of the most exciting discoveries in my life as an archaeologist,” he said in a press release.

Pompeii was buried in ash when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, killing those who hadn’t managed to leave the city in time. They were either crushed by collapsing buildings or killed by thermal shock.

The 16-square metre (170-square feet) room was a cross between a bedroom and a storeroom: as well as three beds – one of which was child sized – there were eight amphorae, stashed in a corner.

Photo: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

The wooden chest held metal and fabric objects that seem to be part of the harnesses of the chariot horses, and a chariot shaft was found resting on one of the beds.

The remains of three horses were found in a stable in a dig earlier this year.

“The room grants us a rare insight into the daily reality of slaves, thanks to the exceptional state of preservation of the room,” the Pompeii archaeological park said.

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Image: Archaeological Park of Pompeii press office.

Experts had been able to make plaster casts of the beds and other objects in perishable materials which left their imprint in the cinerite — the rock made of volcanic ash — that covered them, it said.

The beds were made of several roughly worked wooden planks, which could be adjusted according to the height of the person who used them.

The webbed bases of the beds were made of ropes, covered by blankets.

While two were around 1.7 metres long, one measured just 1.4 metres, and may therefore have belonged to a child.

The archaeological park said the three slaves may have been a family.

Archaeologists found several personal objects under the beds, including amphorae for private things, ceramic jugs and what might be a chamber pot.

The room was lit by a small upper window, and there are no traces or wall decorations, just a mark believed to have been left by a lantern hung on a wall.

“This incredible new discovery at Pompeii demonstrates that today the archaeological site has become not only one of the most desirable visitor destinations in the world, but also a place where research is carried out and new and experimental technologies are employed,” said Italian Culture Minister Dario Franceschini.

“Thanks to this important new discovery, our knowledge of the daily life of ancient Pompeians has been enriched, particularly of that element of society about which little is known even today. Pompeii is a model of study that is unique in the world.”

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The excavation is part of a programme launched in 2017 aimed at fighting illegal activity in the area, including tunnel digging to reach artefacts that can be sold on illicit markets.

The Villa of Civita Giuliana had been the target of systematic looting for years. There was evidence some of the “archaeological heritage” in this so-called Slave Room had also been lost to looters, the park said.

Damage by grave robbers in the villa had been estimated so far at almost two million euros ($2.3 million), it added.