Category: The Five-Day Dig


Today is the anniversary of the eruption of Vesuvius that buried Pompeii in 79 CE. It’s also my eldest nephew’s birthday, so doubly an important date for me. On this day, one of the most evocative places on earth was frozen in time for us to explore two millennia later — plus I first got to stick out my tongue at a newborn and see him mimic me (as I’d hoped). He has been a quick study ab ovo. 🙂

Vesuvius, from House of the Centenary, PompeiiVesuvius’s most famous eruption was a horrendous tragedy when it happened, but the trove of information it left us about daily life in a Roman town is invaluable — so much more fascinating than written history, which is mostly just about war. For example, the fresco here from a household shrine in ancient Pompeii apparently shows the volcano as it looked before the top blew. This is the only known depiction during the 500 dormant years that lulled the residents of the region into a false sense of safety. Some of those living on the slopes must have seen evidence of charring, steam vents and bubbling mud, but the last eruption had long passed from living memory.

The guy dressed in grapes next to the volcano is Bacchus (aka Dionysus), god of wine, present because the volcanic soil was (and is) excellent for vineyards.

If you’re curious about life in first-century Italy, please check out a fictional exploration in my time-travel romance, Templum. My contemporary mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig also taps into the unparalleled mystique of this setting.

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Hubby and I gave up cable TV a few years ago, so when we channel-surf, we depend on old-fashioned free-to-air entertainment. Recently, on Cozi TV, an old Rock Hudson movie called Come September caught my eye, because it was set in Rome, and you know how I love Rome. 😉 In one of the opening scenes, Gina Lollobrigida was even speaking Italian.

Picnic at Ostia Antica from the Rock Hudson film Come SeptemberHudson’s character is a filthy-rich American who owns a villa outside of Rome that he only visits one month out of the year (September). Lollobrigida is the Italian girlfriend whom he neglects as much as his villa. One year he shows up in July, surprising both the girlfriend, who’s about to marry another guy, and the villa caretaker, who has been running the property as a hotel eleven months out of the year. Adding to the fun, a group of college co-eds that includes Sandra Dee is staying at the hotel, and a group of young guys whom Hudson won’t allow in his house decides to pitch tents outside the gate. (Take that as you will.)

If you’re an archaeology buff like me, the key scene is when practically the whole cast stops to picnic among Roman ruins. The setting looked familiar to Hubby and me, and at first we thought it might be the Palatine Hill, but we soon recognized the area as the main Forum at Ostia Antica outside of Rome near Fiumicino airport. They also show a little (we think) of the baths area off the Forum of the Heroic Statue.

If you’ve read my archaeological mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig, you may remember that in it Chaz wants to get to Ostia to study temples there for his PhD thesis. I’ve also posted here before about the ancient city, which is almost as well preserved as Pompeii, though not quite as extensive. Ostia doesn’t have bodies like Pompeii, but unlike its more famous rival, some of its multi-story buildings have survived the millennia.

To learn all about Ostia, visit ostia-antica.org. (I’ve spent hours on this site, clicking around the interactive map of the city, which the site somewhat confusingly calls a “Topographical Dictionary.”) For Come September on DVD, click here. Lollobrigida won a Golden Globe for her performance.

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This cryptic thought is from Andrea Camilleri’s mystery The Shape of Water (or La Forma dell’Acqua in the original Italian). Since the concept is key to how Camilleri’s Inspector Montalbano unravels a suspected murder, I won’t reveal what it means, but it’s one example of the fascinating way this Sicilian author thinks. His characters are not only funny, smart, daring and charming but even philosophical.

cover, Italian edition of La Forma dell'AcquaAnother line I like from the book is, “At that moment, the studio door opened, and an angel appeared.” You might expect the tough cop Montalbano to have this thought about a beautiful woman (especially since he tends to meet lots of them), but the angel turns out to be a sensitive young man overwhelmed with grief for the victim in the story.

The book lovers on Bookflurries first led me to the Montalbano books and the TV series based on them. Figuring that the subtitled TV shows might help in my slow quest to learn Italian, I started watching them with Hubby and got hooked at the opening aerial views of hillside architecture in bella Sicilia. Hubby bought me La Forma dell’Acqua after I mentioned wanting to try reading the book in the original language.

Even with my limited fluency, stumbling through La Forma was a labor of love. Like Winnie in my own Italian-set mystery The Five-Day-Dig, I’m fascinated by language. It’s interesting to note that some English idioms translate almost word-for-word into Italian. Montalbano worries about dealing with someone “non avrebbe voluto spartirci il pane,” literally, with whom “he wouldn’t want to break bread.” And when a colleague he dislikes asks how he knew something unexpected, he says, “Mi l’ha detto il mio uccello,” the way we might say, “A little bird told me.”

Loved both the book (linked above) and the TV version. The episode isn’t currently available for video streaming on Amazon (even though it’s listed here), but you can get it on DVD with two other episodes here.

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Do You Like Gladiator Movies?

Around the time my archaeology mystery The Five-Day-Dig came out, movies about ancient Rome looked like they were about to trend. I heard there was going to be a British miniseries based on Robert Harris’s bestselling novel Pompeii, that HBO planned to update the 1970s series I, Claudius, and that an Italian filmmaker had a Pompeii thriller in the works.

A year later, I haven’t seen any news on those projects, but this recent casting announcement in Variety mentions another film titled Pompeii, this one directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, the guy behind Resident Evil. The story follows Milo, a Pompeian slave, as he tries to save the woman he loves and his best friend during the fateful eruption of Vesuvius that buries the town. Kit Harington, who plays Jon Snow on “Game of Thrones” is in talks to play the lead. According to moviefone.com, Christoph Waltz, Logan Lerman, Ray Stevenson, Milla Jovovich, and Luke Evans are also on tap.

Past Pompeii-centric flicks include at least half-a-dozen versions of the awful The Last Days of Pompeii, based on the novel by Edward George Bulwer-Lytton, the same guy who penned the line “It was a dark and stormy night …” Another awful 1960s British series called Up Pompeii centered around a Benny Hill-esque ancient Roman.

To date, the best film ever set in the star-crossed town has to be the trippy, Spinal-Tap-like Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii from 1972. If you’ve never seen it, I highly recommend it.

I’m still hoping that Pompeii movies do take off in the near future, because I wrote the first draft of The Five-Day-Dig as a screenplay — and if the right director comes along, I’d be happy to pull it back out and polish it up. 😉

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There’s a scene in my archaeological mystery/romance The Five-Day-Dig where the excavation team comes across nails, hinges, locks and braces scattered on a floor among the ruins. “That’s what’s left of furniture after the wood decomposes,” one of the characters explains. “These fittings were parts of chests, cabinets or shelves.” In Pompeii, most wooden items decomposed centuries ago, but there are some cases of 2,000-year-old wood surviving in the ancient town and in nearby Herculaneum, which was buried in the same eruption.

The bedside table you see here is not from Ikea (har!) — it’s from Herculaneum. Wandering through the small fraction of the town that has been excavated, you can see plenty of wooden beams, window and door frames, railings, bed frames and the large folding wooden screen that gave the House of the Wooden Partition its name. For more pics of ancient Roman wooden furniture, see this very cool blog post from Bensozia.

Pompeii doesn’t seem to have as much surviving wood as Herculaneum, but archaeologists have made plaster casts (like the plaster body casts you’ve probably seen) of some of the decomposed wooden items. When Hubby and I went, we saw casts of wooden doors and shutters, but we missed the casts of furniture in the House of Julius Polybius. Something to check out next time — because we totally need another trip to Pompeii. 😉

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