After a long sleep, Vesuvius woke up on the 24th of August of 79 AD, taking the local population by surprise. The eruption was apocalyptic: life at the foot of the volcano was cancelled. Of the cities that were buried even the memory was lost.

After 1700 years, these lost cities of the Vesuvius started to reappear, offering to all humanity the two most important archaeological sites in the world: Herculaneum and Pompeii.

Unlike Pompeii, covered by a layer of ashes and lapillus, Herculaneum was submerged by a 25 mt thick layer of mud and lava. It was the mud that preserved it all, sealing everything: cloth and food underwent a slow transformation, remaining, however, un-altered in their wrapping, almost petrified.

In 1709 Prince d’Eboeuf , digging a well in one of his villas, came upon the Theatre by chance. In 1738 Charles of Bourbon ordered the start of the excavations. The most clamorous surprise was the majestic Villa of Papyri, from which the bronze and marble sculptural patrimony (today in the Archaeological Museum of Naples), and the papyrus library (more than 1,800 philosophical texts, now housed in the Naples National Library) were extracted.

In 1927 the excavation of the homes and public offices begun: in the north they reached the Forum, centre of economic, social and political life; to the east the sports centres and to the south the suburban thermal spas.

At Herculaneum the wealthy Romans enjoyed their vacations, as testimonied by the sumptuous villas on the sea. The streets, paved with vesuvian lava rock or limestone, outline the charactaristic “insulae” (island) urban planning.

One of the most beautiful dwellings of the city is the House with the Mosaic Atrium, which owes its name to the beautiful black and white pavement. In the garden of the luxurious House of the Deer statues of deer attacked by dogs, of the Satyr with goatskin, and a drunken Hercules were found.

The Thermal spas of the Forum were the public bathing houses of the city. In the House of the carbonised furniture, the wooden furniture is still in its original place: a bed and a small table. The House of the mosaic of Neptune and Amphitrite, with its shop (the most well preserved), has a grandiose atrium and the most beautiful mosaics in the city. The House of Argus, on two floors, has a garden encircled by porticos and columns.

 

In the public realm, the Forum was excavated, crossed by the main street (decumanus maximus) and the Shrine of the Augustals, decorated with frescoes. Along the “decumanus” there are porticos that bring to mind a public gathering place, probably the Basilica. Noteworthy the Palestra, a grand augustian building with an open-air swimming pool with, in its centre, a bronze fountain in the shape of a hydris. Outside the city walls the Suburban Thermal Spas can be admired. The Villa of Papyri, only partially excavated, is open to the public, but the Theatre is not. It takes about half a day to visit the Herculaneum ruins.

As far as we know, Herculaneum was an italic city founded around the IVth century B.C. coping, in the geometric regularity of his structures, the lay-out of Naples, to see how the "decumani" (the main streets, with an east-west orientation) and the "cardines" (narrower streets) identify with those of the Partenopean city. There is undeniably a "feeling" about Herculaneum which is quite different from what one "feel" in other ancient world centres brought to light so far, including Pompeii.

To a large extent this is due to the special circumstances of its interment by Vesuvius during the eruption of 79 A.D. The city was not struck by ashes and lapilli, but by a torrent of mud flooding down from the slopes of the volcano. Having solidified and becoming tufalike, it constituted for centuries the best possible defence against atmospheric agents and against illegal excavators. Towards the end of the first century B.C. the town become a resort center for the Roman aristocracy. Unlike Pompeii, Herculaneum seems a more peaceful town, especially devoted to navy and fishing with a lot of greenery and vineyards. It is said, in fact, that Herculaneum was Epicure's favorite place for his philosophical studies.

Herculaneum had four to five thousands inhabitants and its square measure was a fifth smaller that of Pompeii. It was destroyed by the 79 A.D. eruption. Herculaneum seems more elegant and refined than Pompeii because of the original character of architecture and decoration (ornaments) and because of the natural position above the scenary of the gulf.

Excavations began in 1709, while from 1738 to 1765 systematic explorations were conducted by order of Charles III of Bourbons.

From 1927 the excavations in the open of the whole area were begun by Amedeo Maiuri.

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