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Pat Hartman

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30 years ago
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To See Venice
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Sisters Under the Skin

by Pat Hartman

I don’t care what anybody says; the true sister city of Venice, California was smothered by volcanic deposits when Mt. Vesuvius erupted in the year 79.

This was bad for Pompeii, but good for us, because the layer of ash that buried the city preserved it for us to find and dig up after nearly two millennia of obscurity.

There are scads of parallels between Pompeii and our Venice as designed and built by Abbot Kinney, and yet more uncanny similarities to Pompeii are found in other stages of Venice’s history. Having survived its first hundred years, the Venice of today is a reincarnation of Pompeii.

First, you got your hipness factor, composed of several elements: multiculturalism, an art scene, street life, an underworld, political activism, fine dining, psychoactive drugs, advanced technology, avant-garde fashion, religious tolerance, sexual permissiveness, athletics, tourism, location, location, and location.

The people of Pompeii weren’t caught totally without warning, and it’s possible most of them got away. Opulent villas were uninhabited when disaster befell the city. Maybe they were second homes whose owners didn’t happen to be on vacation, or maybe the wealthy could better afford to flee the impending doom. A lot of evidence is missing because local thieves, the bane of digs everywhere, made off with cartloads of artifacts when the buried city was rediscovered So the archeological record doesn’t provide an exact snapshot of the Pompeians’ everyday life.

Still, we know an astonishing amount about them, thanks mainly to their art. They were considerate enough to leave behind illustrations of the activities conducted in various venues. Scenes of camaraderie decorated the walls of a drinking establishment, scenes of even closer camaraderie adorned the walls of a brothel, and so on. But explicit erotic art also enlivened the private and public areas of homes. Because of this perceived indecency, many frescoes were destroyed the first generation of archaeologists to get at them, and others were spirited away and locked up.

Other preserved artwork included trompe l’oiel murals, designed to fool the eye into thinking it beheld an adjacent room, a scene through a window, or more trees than a courtyard actually contained. The Pompeians also went in for purely decorative architectural flourishes, and there‘s even a rudimentary comic strip depicting a game of chance, in two sequential frames. The punch line is lame, but the artist gets major points for innovation.

One thing you find plenty of in Venice is poetry, and the Pompeians went to poetry readings too. They also enjoyed theatrical entertainment ranging from vaudeville-style variety to heavy drama. The musical instruments of the time included four kinds of trumpets, pan flutes and a plethora of other wind instruments, at least half a dozen kinds of stringed instruments, and a wide variety of drums. There were public concerts, and no gathering of friends and business associates in a private home was complete without live music.

Located on the Bay of Naples, Pompeii grew rich because of its excellent harbor. The tourist trade was brisk, but not nearly as massive as it is in Venice, where the ocean brings wealth for a different reason. Pompeii was a freewheeling hub of commerce where three major languages and any number of others were spoken, depending on which trading vessels were currently docked.

The street life of Pompeii was so fabulous, you’d think you were on the Venice boardwalk, especially in the pedestrian-friendly areas where vehicles and even horses were barred. The streets were more or less open sewers, which one could safely cross with the aid of stepping-stones. These would come in handy in Venice, for the dogshit problem.

The narrow streets of Pompeii were lined with monuments, gardens, terraces, fountains, bars, restaurants, and luxury hotels, as well as cheaper accommodations. There were murals everywhere, described by one critic as remarkable more for brilliance of composition than skill of execution.

Wealthy Pompeians, whose palates relished such delicacies as nightingales’ tongues and roasted flamingo, would have been right at home in the star-studded eateries of Venice. They had chafing dishes, spoons, knives and finger bowls, and even enjoyed a form of fruit-flavored iced dessert.

A strolling Pompeian could grab a bite from any number of fast-food serving counters. Some stalls sold bread, whose quality was controlled by strict regulations and licensing. Our street vendors put up banners and signs; their Pompeian counterparts waved different species of branches to signify particular wares, and reinforced the message by yelling out their sales pitches. All kinds of fortunetellers and healers offered their services.

Clothing was pretty much the same throughout the Roman empire, limited to a few basic styles and fabrics. The Pompeians compensated for this drabness with fashionable jewelry, including gorgeous carved cameos. Museums display their mirrors, bone combs, and glass perfume bottles. According to the murals, women had the option of two-piece bathing suits, a fashion that was also forgotten for centuries.

Neither Venice Beach nor Pompeii would be complete without the kids and their toys. Girls had dolls made of clay, rags, or wax. If their parents were well-to-do, the dolls were ivory, complete with jointed limbs. Children also had hoops, hobbyhorses, stilts, spinning tops, model chariots and boats, and toy carts that they tied to the tails of mice or small reptiles. They played blind man’s bluff and leapfrog, and of course competitive games based on warfare.

For the grownups, the Pompeian culture offered many sports both spectator and participatory. Fitness was maintained with athletics and exercise. They knew various games played with balls both soft and hard, including one called ludere expulsim, the precursor of volleyball. (Beach volleyball films are, of course, one of the major exports of Venice.) The Pompeians liked to watch athletic competitions too, especially the bloody stuff like wild animals or convicts tearing each other apart. And we complain about violence on TV. In the amphitheater, Pompeii’s largest building, gladiators both male and female proved why they were the superheroes of the era. During one period, boxing matches were very popular in Venice, as they were in old Pompeii.

Then as now, sports arenas were prone to public disorder. In the year 59, supporters of the home team and the Nucerian visitors rioted after the gladiatorial games, and the Roman riot squad moved in and closed down the amphitheater for a time. This is all too reminiscent of several police actions in Venice over the years, in reaction to rock concerts and other crowd-based events.

Again resembling the Venice, Pompeian public spaces echoed with the oratory of politicians, and civic affairs were widely and vociferously discussed in all outdoor venues. Another thing the two cities have in common is the tradition of public bathhouses. In Venice of course most of the action has moved to the beach, but in the early days there was a bathhouse on the Lagoon, a huge one on the ocean front, and another in Ocean Park. Pompeii had three public baths, of varying sizes and degrees of opulence. Back then, the function of the public bathhouse was more like that of a local bar crossed with a health club. You could soak in hot or cold water, work out, have a massage, buy a snack, indulge in a quickie with a resident trollop, or simply hang out to catch up on the gossip and connect with friends and colleagues. For Pompeian men, a session at the public baths was the perfect end to a hard day of trading commodities, debating politics, or bossing the help.

Pompeii was home to adherents of various non-mainstream religious sects, including the almost brand-new cult of Jesus. Apparently some folks were willing to pay tribute to several deities, covering the bases just for insurance. The occasional sorehead would scratch a religious slur on a wall, but by and large there seems to have been a live-and-let-live attitude. As in Venice, any occasion called for a public display followed by a party. Funerals were large and elaborate, and there were annual observances similar to the Mexican Dia de los Muertos.

Eroticism was everywhere in Pompeii, practiced with an enthusiasm lovingly depicted in its murals and mosaics. Even the wind chimes were shaped like flying penises, since the phallus was not just a sexy ornament but an important sign to ward off evil. Venus had her worshippers, and many people belonged to the Cult of Isis, the same religion professed by the most orgy-prone of Roman emperors.

From its earliest days Venice was the scene of bathing-beauty contests, midway hootchie-cootchie dancers, illicit trysts, and more free love than you could shake a stick at. Even Abbot Kinney had a mistress. During one glorious and all too short era Venice had a nude beach, and for some time now it’s been one of the skin capitals of the world, as well the location for you wouldn’t believe how many porno flicks.

Pompeii hosted a thriving demimonde or floating world of sex workers, actors, pugilists, sailors, players, transients, suspicious characters, hustlers, nutcases, and ne’er-do-wells, along with the industries supported by marginal people and fringe groups everywhere. Gambling took place in the free-form environment of the streets, or in establishments which, despite the fact that gambling was technically illegal in Roman-held territories, managed to get by. (It was okay to bet on gladiator matches and horse races.) There were games that involved shaking dice in a cup, coin-toss games, and doubtless many more. The Pompeians didn’t play poker, but had chips marked with different values for use in other games.

Venice has the reputation of being more underworld than legitimate, a reputation well-deserved on some counts. Games of chance are part of the shady tradition, from the bingo parlors that were outlawed in the rest of Greater Los Angeles, to the mobsters’ casino ships moored three miles out, to the crapshooting and numbers rackets of the Oakwood ghetto.

In Pompeii everyone drank wine all day long (sound familiar?). It was prepared hot or cold and spiced with a variety of additives. Entheogens, or psychoactive drugs used obtain spiritual epiphanies, were used by many religions. Cannabis was grown and doubtless smoked in ancient Italy, and ultra-nutritious hemp seed was a common food. We won’t even go into the reputation of Venice, California as a drug capital. We’ll just leave that one alone.

Pompeian technology encompassed a machine for kneading bread dough, although admittedly the power was supplied by animals or slaves. At home, flower boxes occupied the patio, which was in the middle of the house. A fine residence would have running water and an indoor latrine.

However, and like Venice, people did pee in the streets. Unlike Venice, this habit was accepted and even encouraged, as long as you helped to fill the big jars designated for the purpose. The collected urine was used by professional launderers to bleach the togas, which were then steamed with sulfurous fumes. And they had the nerve to charge for this service! It’s a good thing most of the populace spent the majority of their time outdoors.

A classic Pompeii wall inscription suggests that even if public urination wasn’t an issue, there was a problem with Number Two. The irate sign-writer warned, "Watch it, you that shits in this place! May you have Jove's anger if you ignore this."

An awful lot of what we know about the lives of the Pompeians comes from wall inscriptions ranging from official announcements to plain old verbal bashing of certain named individuals, from "You are a horny guy!" and "You give great head!" to "You’re a clown, a thief, and a petty crook!" and "You deserve to die!" Research has revealed slanderous warnings about third parties such as "Restitutus has many times deceived many girls," and even dialogue graffiti with remarks and ripostes.

Political advertising was rife. A man seeking office would hire someone to write his name, slogans, and campaign promises on the walls. These professionals preferred to work at night, more to avoid the jostling of the crowds and the heat than for anonymity, because they sometimes signed their handiwork. Prominent individuals endorsed their favorites, and of course there was negative campaigning too. A candidate’s enemies would announce that he numbered all the cutpurses and drunkards among his supporters. Bloc voting was a feature of civic life, and notices could be found advising that so-and-so was the chosen candidate of the fruit dealers, goldsmiths, mule drivers, or devotees of Isis.

The strolling Pompeian would see rental notices, offers of rewards for lost or stolen property, and announcements of entertaining spectacles. When gladiatorial combats were advertised, awnings for the paying spectators were a big selling point. Even the hookers peddled their wares in writing.

Residents voiced their feelings on the walls, such as this early expression of compassion fatigue: "I detest beggars. If somebody asks for something for free, he is an idiot; let him pay his cash and get what he wants." They indulged in general philosophy: "The smallest evil if neglected, will reach the greatest proportions." They vented their happiness with or disappointment in the current state of their emotional lives, with sentiments ranging from trite complacency ("Only he who loves is happy") to anguish ("Anybody in love, come here. I want to break Venus's ribs with a club and cripple the goddess's loins. If she can pierce my tender breast, why can't I break her head with a club?").

Anyone who hangs out in Venice has seen similar graffiti by the yard. One Pompeian inscription translates rather fancily to, "I wonder, O wall, that you have not fallen in ruins from supporting the stupidities of so many scribblers"- a question that, like their historical counterparts, many Venetians have had occasion to ask

When different groups of people share an urban area, cosmopolitan sophistication is only one side of the coin. The other is violence. In Pompeii, warfare between several local populations had been business as usual for a couple of centuries. Around 200 B.C. they seem to have figured out how to cooperate, and the city began to prosper. Still, peace did not reign. The disputes between the Pompeians and their neighbors resembled gang wars. Even in the private sector, violence and enmity reigned. Every rich man had his own private cadre of thugs, a system more tidy than gangs acting on their own.

For a long time, one of the remarkable features of Venice was the proximity of upscale, designer homes to miserable shacks. The same schizoid mixture was found in Pompeii, where the noble houses even had burglar bars on their street-facing windows.

When comparing Venice, CA with ancient Pompeii, the hot question is whether Los Angeles plays the role of imperial Rome or Vesuvius, the volcano.

Pompeii‘s primary language was Latin, an unavoidable consequence of its being the vacation resort of choice for Rome’s ruling families. Of course where the rich are, there must also be the nameless, faceless nobodies who tend the endless needs of their alleged superiors. Pompeii’s system of slavery was not absolute - the owned could earn money and buy their way out - but still it was bad enough. They didn’t have the same rights as freemen, were seen as not quite human, and could be murdered with impunity. Some slaves, like some of our own immigrants, were more highly educated than the people they worked for. The unluckiest slaves were branded, filthy, clothed in tatters, and undernourished - like some street people of today.

Pompeii also had another class of unemployed, the salutores, who lived by the good graces of the rich. A pauper didn’t panhandle, but attached himself to one powerful person. A large part of the wealthy man’s day was taken up by his obligation to grant gifts of money and favors to his contingent of clients, as the mendicants were also known. They in turn owed favors to this godfather figure.

Between the extremes of wealth and poverty, Pompeii, like Venice, even had what might be called a middle class. Those who couldn’t afford a whole house would form a co-op association and build one together. There were plenty of landlords who, like their modern brethren, were not well thought of.

Eventually the Roman army strong-armed its way into dominance and Pompeii became a colony of the world-gobbling imperial city. Venice, beginning with its annexation in the 1920s, and much to its eternal regret, has repeatedly succumbed to the superior power of Los Angeles.

The other looming nearby danger to Pompeii was of course Vesuvius. Only a few years before its entombment in a stratum of ash, the city was nearly wiped out by an earthquake, the frequent companion of volcanoes. Venice was repeatedly attacked by vile weather during its construction, and has endured storms and earthquakes ever since. Los Angeles could definitely be Vesuvius - a big, inimical monster whose periodic eruptions have repeatedly engulfed Venice in one way or another.

Before the big blowout, the volcanic ash made the land around Pompeii agriculturally fertile. But this boon granted by an omnipotent neighbor was only a short-term good, and eventually Vesuvius crushed the lovely seaside colony.

Of Pompeii, a contemporary Roman historian wrote that it was the most beautiful place not only in Italy, but anywhere. He was brother under the skin to the ever-present core of chauvinistic Venice natives whose concern would be hard-pressed to extend beyond its borders, whose cry rings out loud and true: "If it’s not in Venice, I don’t want it"

© 2004 - 2012 Pat Hartman
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