ITALY: BALCONIES, RUINS, & OPERA
Did I tell you I love cities with balconies?
Lisbon’s wrought-iron balconies that remind me of the French Quarter in New Orleans … Seville’s “kissing balconies” in the old Jewish Quarter …. Actually the Jews brought balconies with them from Andalusia to Morocco, where traditional Arab houses turned inward, facing an inner garden courtyard known as a riad. Jewish houses faced outwards, with balconies that overlooked the sea, the street, & even cemeteries. A means of protection allowing the inhabitants to see the external world? Or a means of merging the inner & outer worlds? Whichever it is, I love them. And I am in Naples—oh, Naples, the Queen of Balconies—always crammed with laundry, brilliant shirts, faded jeans, towels & sheets swaying against gray sky & balmy sea air.
My first view: from a balcony in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, whose wide windows open onto gardens & courtyards, streets & buildings. The dark, dazzling panorama of the city is as fascinating & breathtaking as the incredible art inside its seemingly endless rooms. I move from the exquisite embarrassment of the Pompeiian baker Terentius Nero & his wife frozen forever in a painted fresco to a balcony where three American students pose for selfies—no embarrassment here—& car horns blare, tires screech, TVs blast, & a man sings opera at the top of his lungs.
I return inside the museum to the Sappho, the wonderfully ageless portrait of a woman pausing in thought as she writes ...
... & to room after room of frescoes, statues, wall panels, & artifacts taken from the houses of Pompeii & Herculaneum, two cities destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD. Tomorrow I will go to Pompeii & wander the ancient city from one end to the other, moving in diagonals & half-moons like the Teatro, until the sky turns pink, an evening breeze blows, & only a handful of guards & tourists remain.
I stride over large lava blocks of the street & leap onto the high sidewalks as if I live here. I enter the villa of Marcus Lucretius Fronto—possibly the most beautiful house in Pompeii—with its frescoes as bright & vivid as if they were painted yesterday.
House after house decorated with haunting frescoes of animals, nature, people, gods & goddesses. Where did the painter get that blue, a blue so intense it reminds me of Moroccan doors? And the delicacy to paint an angel’s glittering, translucent wings? And how did it feel to live surrounded by such glorious art? I pass the fuller’s establishment—the laundry of Stephanus—where he washed clothes in stone tubs that were liberally laced with urine to treat the cloth. I wrinkle my nose as if I can still smell it, & I remember overhearing a woman in Naples complain, “It’s so smelly, loud, & dirty here. How can they hang clothes in such filthy air?”
Napolitanos are no strangers to strong smells, & neither were the ancient Pompeiians—they may not have eaten pizza with strong cheeses, but the sea swept nearly to the Porta Marina, they seasoned their food with garum, a pungent fish paste, & horses, donkeys, & people relieved themselves on the street. There was no sewage, & water flowed down the city toward the southern gate. There were wonderful smells too—of fresh bread baking, take-out joints serving hot food, incense & perfumes.
On another balcony of the Naples Archaeological Museum, I stand next to a guard (smoking) & stare at the city below—crammed with people, like its buses, trains & clubs. Colors, sounds, smells so vivid & raw they jolt you awake. Even the odd-shaped sharp black stones on the ancient streets force you to pay attention or you’ll stumble. This city is bursting with energy like a black sun. Rays reach toward you to draw you inside. Whether it’s balconies or storefronts or voices & hands, the city invites you to enter & become a part of it.
Back inside the museum to the ancient art, the richly decorated panels that adorned the houses of Pompeii. A couple sits on the floor & kisses in front of an enormous fresco. They are exactly right, I think, to respond to the pleasure Pompeii’s artists took in celebrating the body & erotic delight. Even my favorite statue of the goddess Isis is softly sensual & curved, utterly female in her power. Later, at her Temple in Pompeii, I will think about how the ancient world whispers to us when we live in its shadows. If we listen, we can learn so much—not only about how they lived, but about how we live … & how we can live better.
Tomorrow I will go to Herculaneum, Pompeii’s little sister, & the instant I enter, I feel a sharp pain, a blow to the gut. Tears burn my eyes. The town is so small & homey, almost intimate after the grandeur of Pompeii. It is divided into little blocks, houses, shops, corners & gardens. Vesuvius looms overhead, cloaked in clouds, & the modern town coexists peacefully with the ancient one at its feet like a slumbering cat. Laundry, of course, hangs from balconies. A man sings opera (that’s three times in three days I hear a man singing opera!), the passionate drama in his voice perfect for this place, this moment.
In Herculaneum I have no guide, no book, only my instincts to lead me. I am alone & I wander down streets until I find a peaceful corner in a “backyard” of a house, & climb up a small stone staircase. I sit for a while & imagine the people of the house eating, washing, praying, dreaming, touching, kissing ….
I am a slave girl hiding in the kitchen garden. I hear footsteps, low voices. Someone is coming. They know I’m here, & I need to get back to work before I’m punished. But the voices fade, the steps recede, & I’m alone again. Were the voices from then, or now? For a moment I wonder if I am from then, or now. When I climb down my staircase & step back onto the street, what will I find?
Maybe then and now have merged, like the balcony & the inner heart of the house it protects, like the sleeves of shirts waving from the railings-- arms beckoning.
Maybe I live here too, in one of the apartments overlooking the ancient town. I take down the clothes I hung to dry & breathe them in. They smell faintly sweet, covered with a fine layer of dust that clings no matter how hard I shake them.
From the next balcony a man clears his throat, preparing to break into song.
From a small stone staircase far below, so far away I barely glimpse her, a woman smiles & waves at me.
After a long long moment I wave back.