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The Villa of Italian American Mysteries
I found a strange familiarity at Pompeii's Villa of the Mysteries
To get to the Villa of the Mysteries, go past the urban grid of roofless Roman houses, and make a right in Pompeii’s Forum. The archeological park starts getting greener and you’ll notice cranes on the left side where new excavations are yielding finds like a stable with an ancient chariot. The road descends past funerary monuments and cypress trees offer some shade from the unrelenting sun.
The Villa of the Mysteries was discovered on the outskirts of Pompeii in the early 20th century. The name refers to a series of sumptuous frescoes that depict uninterpretable scenes of human and mythological figures, dining, dancing, relaxing, and being whipped.
British art historians described them as scenes from initiation rites of a Bacchic sex cult. Though there was never any textual basis for this, generations of art history students had to memorize what were really naughty Victorian fantasies and repeat them in essay questions. Those historians supported their hypothesis by saying the frescoes were in a room hidden away in the luxury villa, a sort-of speakeasy for cult members. But the frescoes are clearly in a dining room, not at all hidden. The room has windows that opened up to views of the sea and the grapevines that once surrounded it. I guess they never imagined how many people would eventually visit Pompeii.
I am eager to see the frescoes which were restored since I last visited. My husband Christian is eager to get there because the way-finding signage pointing us to the Villa of the Mysteries also promises a restroom. We proceed through a maze of pomegranate trees and humming cicadas, then break paths on our respective missions.
I go to the glowing red frescoes, gorgeous, and clearly a vanity project meant to show off the hosts’s riches to to dinner guests some 2,000 odd years ago. The images probably were inspired by a piece of Pompeiian pop culture — a story or play that was once fashionable but whose original source is now lost.
I turn around and notice Christian pacing around the shady portico of the 2,000 year villa.
“Out of order,” he growls. “Supposedly there’s a snack bar just beyond those gates,” he says pointing toward an exit point.
Immediately beyond the the turnstile is a souvenir stand with signs advertising coffee and snacks. I order two cups of bright yellow lemon granita spinning around in a machine, and the woman behind the counter invites me to go sit down in the garden.
It feels twenty degrees cooler in the shade. I sit at wobbly table surrounded by terracotta pots and fake columns painted with lemons and grape vines, and garden ornaments in the shape of Medusas and fauns. It’s quiet except for the patter of a three people, presumably the family who owns this place, chatting away in Neapolitan. What probably sounds like arguing to other from the anglophone world sounds comforting and familiar to me as someone with Italian heritage.
Christian returns and the woman promptly places the lemon granita in front of us. The flavor is so pure and tart it’s like seeing light for the first time.
I meet Christian’s wide and happy eyes and ask, “Am I having a heat stroke or does this place remind you of the Bronx?”
“Yeah, totally,” he replies, nodding.
More than the Bronx, the garden looks, smells, and feels like my grandparents garage in the summer, when they would open the door, and unfold beach chairs to enjoy the hot day from the cool shade. All manner of garden supplies were hung on the walls, and there was a plate of fruit, always fruit, and maybe also walnuts and a few pink packets of Sweet & Low because espresso had always just come or gone.
I feel charged with something brighter than nostalgia. Though my grandparents departed this world long ago, I feel like I just stepped into a portal where they’re alive, I’m alive, and Pompeii is alive even after being buried by a super volcano. This could be the Bronx or any of the places where Southern Italians like my grandparents planted old roots in new ground, and enjoyed the beauty of a hot summer day. I look back at the Villa of the Mysteries and 2,000 years disappears.