Bouncing off the ancient walls of Pompeii’s amphitheatre, Pink Floyd’s synthesised sonics were as much of a surprise to my fellow tourists as the first deep growl from Mount Vesuvius must have been to the city’s inhabitants 1,900 years before.
A fan on a bucket-list pilgrimage, top of the list was the Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii Underground exhibition at the UNESCO World Heritage site – but I hadn’t realised the little-known showcase of the band’s iconic 1971 gig would offer a visual delight as well as an audible feast.
Along the passageways under the tiered seating are hung 250 never-before-seen photos and other memorabilia of the band eerily performing in the empty stadium, observed only by the small film crew and French director Adrian Maben, who conceived “rock’s wackiest idea, ever” half a century ago, and who curated the current exhibit. Two large screens play the legendary concert documentary on a loop, and a series of speakers play the soundtrack that follows visitors along the stone tunnels, the psychedelic melodies adding to the ethereal atmosphere.
The exhibition is not mentioned in the guidebooks and many of my fellow travellers wandered into the chasms unaware of what they would find.
“Let’s get out of here!” exclaimed a young woman, a child of the noughties perhaps, to her boyfriend as a much-altered version of Seamus, from the band’s seminal album Meddle and renamed Mademoiselle Nobs for Pompeii, struck up. As captured on film, Richard Wright holds a microphone to the mouth of his Afghan hound, named Nobs, which duly starts to howl like a tortured banshee at David Gilmour’s harmonica playing; there’s no debate some early Pink Floyd numbers are not for the faint-hearted or appreciated by those suffering from tinnitus.
In its prime, the amphitheatre – the oldest known example from the Roman world – could hold 20,000 spectators. It was built in a peripheral part of the metropolis close to the city walls, partly to avoid disturbing the daily lives of those Pompeiians who were too busy to attend gladiatorial blood and gore matinees, animal sacrifices and human executions.
It’s a 40-minute hike to the amphitheatre from Pompeii’s main entrance, which is close to the train station that serves Naples. I found my quarry in much better shape than that seen in Maben’s 47-year-old film. Instead of feral weeds and mounds of volcanic ash and pumice, the arena is now neatly manicured and white gravel crunches satisfyingly under foot.
Sitting with my back against the antique walls eating my lunch with the spring sun on my face and with Mount Vesuvius’s summit looming over the north stand, the trippy A Saucerful of Secrets wafted out of the southern entrance followed by Careful With That Axe, Eugene. I wandered back in to see a small crowd gathered around one of the screens showing drummer Nick Mason in the zone, his long hair blowing in the Campanian summer night breeze, bashing away to One Of These Days I Am Going to Cut You into Little Pieces, during what was to become one of his and rock music’s most celebrated drum sequences.
So vast is Pompeii that on that sunny April day I had entire streets to myself. I hopped from one side of the street to the other, making good use of the large stepping stones that allowed Pompeiians to cross without risking a foot dunking into the mire – Pompeii’s roads doubled up as the city’s drainage and sewage system.
At the time of the eruption on August 24, 79AD, Pompeii was a prosperous and attractive place to live in and visit; tourists from the Eternal City, Rome, a 225km chariot day’s ride away to the north, flocked to the pastoral and fertile setting near to the Amalfi coast, flanked by the verdant Sarno river valley and in the shadow of the Lattari Mountains and Vesuvius.
Indeed, Rome’s empire was enjoying its Pax Romania period at the time of the eruption, a time of relative peace and stability, with most of continental Europe, North Africa and much of Britain conquered and the barbarians either slain, on the run or secretly plotting revolt.
Before all hell let loose Pompeiians did pretty much what we 21st Century homo-sapiens do. They worked and partook in leisure; they raised families; indulged in home makeovers; revamped the garden; headed to the gym for a sauna and bath; visited the theatre; threw parties with free-flowing wine; and indulged passionately in civic life.
Details of everyday Roman life in the 1st Century are perfectly preserved. I found satisfaction and comfort in the politically charged and often bawdy graffiti. There’s hardly a wall in neighbouring Naples free of modern spray paint graffiti; some are exceptional, artistic, political and generally thought-provoking, much of it lazily produced squiggles of plain ugly nonsense.
No doubt Pompeii’s graffiti received similar tuts from the conservative middle-aged, but even 1,900 years on, you can at least read them. Among (the printable) are C. Iulium Polybium aedilem oro vos faciatis. Panem bonum fert — “I beg you to make C. Julius Polybius a magistrate. He makes good bread”, and Lucilla ex corpore lucrum faciebat — “Lucilla made money from her body”.
Aboard the return train, commuters mingled with tourists and the babble of international languages and tinny acoustics jarred on the ear, so I turned on Spotify and again zoned in to Live at Pompeii. The sun’s red disc sank into the Bay of Naples and as the graffitied suburbs rolled by I chuckled to myself as I renamed one of the songs Careful With That Spray Can, Maximus.
I flew with British Airways from London Gatwick for a four-night and five-day visit, staying in a traditional Naples apartment booked on Airbnb just short walks to the centre, old city and Spanish Quarter.
By Peter Simpson