April 13, 2016
Here, not much remains. Among other things, there are a few sheared-off pillars and some grass-covered stairs, a pebble-strewn atrium, four marble thresholds of four bricked-up rooms, some nettles and a bowing brick arch. Yet the back garden’s eye-snaring fountain is still fully intact, with its patterns of stones and glass and shells, its mosaics of wing-spread birds and half-moon bands and a baffled looking river god with a scraggly beard of reeds, and its two stone-carved faces – a mask of Tragedy, a lion-hooded Hercules – gap-mouthed and flanking the sides.
All through my childhood, a fat Children’s Bible sat on my shelf propped next to a uniform azure block of Hardy Boys Mysteries. I don’t remember who gave it to me – it seemed as if it had always been there—and if I also don’t remember ever reading it, I spent plenty of time pouring over its pastel-heavy illustrations or just gazing upon its cover, with its mottled marble design and turbaned, staff-clutching desert wanderers who had strapped their belongings to donkeys and seemed to be on a long journey toward the title’s dwarfing, serif-flourished E.
Inside, among all of the gauzy drawings of burning cities and Roman troops and buff, kind-faced Jesuses, I dog-eared my favorite pages: doomed hoards in rising rainwater, clinging to what was left of the shore; the son of God perched atop a jutting clump of rocks with arms spread wide while a crimson and cloven Satan soars off, defeated, into a radiant sky.
Of course, this Pompeii home’s fountain no longer functions. At one point, though, water would have flowed from the mountains for more than twenty miles to the city’s brick reservoir. From there, it would have been channeled through a complex network of pipes that led to one of the town’s pressure-reducing towers, then diverted along what’s now called the Street of Mercury before being pumped through its nozzle and sloshing down a short set of center-stage steps in order to swirl and glimmer in the basin beneath those bookending stone masks that, it’s believed, were designed to hold candles.
The fountain, strategically placed in order to be seen by all visitors to the home, served as a little flag-wave of prosperity and is representative of the kind of showy garden ornament that was fashionable in the years before Pompeii was destroyed. It is, one early visitor to the excavated site wrote, much more a novelty than a thing of beauty. For one thing, the fountain’s positioning within its covered structure—known as an aedicule, or “little temple”—is lopsided and askew. Even more noticeably, the mosaic’s fragments of stone and glass are arranged haphazardly, although this appears to have been intentional, with the irregular angles and jagged shapes serving to refract the candlelight that would have spilled from the mouths and eyes of Tragedy and Hercules and created an effect that was either a picturesque shimmer or, as some have guessed, something fairly ghastly.
Hercules – as a Roman god of victory, fecundity, and commercial success – can be found throughout Pompeii. In the town’s homes, gardens, baths, and shops, he’s often immediately identifiable by his trademark club or lion skin cape or some shorthand version of one of his twelve labors: wrestling a three-headed dog, say, or shouldering the weight of the world while en route to the golden apples.
Other times, stripped of signifiers, things are less clear. One fresco perhaps shows Hercules freeing Theseus from the Underworld, although the image might instead depict a gaggle of musicians and mimes – we can’t be sure. That almost featureless head perched high on the Porta di Nola arch belongs either to Hercules or Minerva. The man asleep beneath the cypress, or the drunk trying to aim his piss, or the hunched figure leading a pig to slaughter – they all might be Hercules as some have claimed, but look as if they could represent nearly anyone at all.
“Split a piece of wood,” the Gospel of Thomas claims, “And I am there. Lift a stone and you will find me.”
Of course, he’s been found elsewhere too. A slice of toast, a bathroom tile, a rusted-out cast iron pan. Dry wall splotches, plywood grain, soap scum, ketchup, an MRI. There’s Jesus in the bark of the storm-ravaged oak, in the butthole of a poodle named Carmi.
Years ago, cued by a viewing of The Greatest Story Ever Told (at a time when a white-robed Max von Sydow hovering climatically in the clouds answered everything I might ask), I once swore to my parents that I could see a groomed, kernel-eyed head of the Son of God nestled at the bottom of my popcorn bowl.
On the garden’s back wall, against a backdrop of yellow and blue, as a means of creating a sense of lushness that went on and on, there had been frescos of myrtle trees, oleander and lavender, as well as some heron-like birds hunting lizards behind a painted lattice fence. Oddly, despite the pains taken to create that illusion of paradise-thick foliage, the trompe l’oeil effect was undercut by a separate hunting scene – men chasing after a boar – painted toward the top of the bricks. This is not a lush paradise, the presence of those men with spears insisted, but merely only a wall.
Which is all that we see today. That painted garden began to collapse not long after the house was excavated, and the fresco is documented only through nineteenth-century etchings. Even if, just a few years back, some leaves flecked with red flowers still remained, now there’s nothing left but a few blotchy pink streaks, and that last holdout bush has vanished.
In the center of a courtyard in Rome, where one can sip cappuccinos or Sardinian wine while watching wall-cloaking jasmine shape-shift in the wind, there’s a fountain with a statue of Hercules strangling a serpent. He’s perched on a little platform just above a wider circle of six Silenus heads spouting water into a larger pool that’s surrounded in turn by six gurgling mouths that look as if they belong to either wolves or dragons which circle a still-wider urn-shaped basin that rests in a pool where water bubbles and ripples night and day.
Here, the half-god hero is nothing more a chubby infant, and even as the snake coils around his forearms and legs, even as water squirts from the forked tongue that juts from its splayed mouth and algae coats the lion skin draped across his back, the kid seems worry-free. With one foot resting on his little bronze toes and the fat-folds of his metal belly glistening, he even looks bemused.
In most versions of the story, Hercules skins the Nemean lion upon completing the first of his labors, impossible feats assigned to him as a means of atoning for the murder of his wife and sons. This fountain’s jumble of chronology, though, is easy enough to overlook. I assume the sculptor needed the lion hide as a signifier in order for his work to avoid the appearance of depicting some random, cast-bronze kid smirking while strangling a snake. The artist, too, must have assumed that we’d all understand well enough that the slaughter is still to come.
From “rock” we get to “heaven.” How does this happen? We can’t be entirely sure, although some believe the trail can be traced. Somewhere within the Indo-European roots, it began with “ak,” meaning “sharp” or “edge,” which, at some point along its lurching etymological path, hitched itself to “men,” giving us “akman,” meaning “sharp stone,” or “sharp stone used as a tool,” then both “hammer” and “the stony vault of heaven.”
Do I know this to be true? I don’t, but I wish it deeply.
Although George Stevens scouted for locations all through the Middle East (stopping along the way to consult with both the Pope and Israel’s Prime Minister), those particular rocks and peaks didn’t seem sublime enough to serve as a backdrop for the life of Jesus. Thus, even though he would need to airfreight backdrop palms and his film’s budget bloated out of the gate, Stevens decided to film The Greatest Story Ever Told in the western United States.
Meaning Nevada’s Pyramid Lake became the Sea of Galilee, and Moab was the location of the Sermon on the Mount, and Jesus wandered Death Valley for forty days and nights, and Mary and Joseph rode donkeyback through miles of unmistakable American landscape against Technicolor blue. And meaning, as the production dragged on into winter, the crew needed to shovel snow from the set and blowtorch the icy rocks outside of Lazarus’ home, and walk-ons were baptized in the Colorado River while wearing wetsuits hidden beneath togas, and the winter-bleached canyons were spray-painted yellow and pink in order to create a cascade of lilies of the field.
For the engineers of Lake Powell, it also meant that the flooding of Glen Canyon would have to wait until Stevens hauled away his helicopters, rented camels, and mess hall tents. When at last the Holy Land became mere rocks yet again and the water’s flow could begin, the flooding lasted for seventeen years, at some point spanning the canyon floor, at some point reaching the faux-Jerusalem walls which, having been discarded by the film’s crew, eventually sagged, toppled, and slowly decayed, at last fully submerged.
During the weeks leading up to my family’s trip to Pompeii, there were inevitable questions from our five-year-old son.
What do we do if the volcano erupts? How will we get away in time?
How do you know it won’t wake up? Was everyone who died there bad?
I told him about seismographs, scientists keeping watch, how our rented car – badabing! – would outrace the lava and carry us home. Choosing to stopper up all kinds of thoughts (back then Cyrus still slept in “Justice Served!” Batman pajamas), I told him there was just no way. Easy.
Easy enough, too, not to mention the unconsoling facts from March 18, 1944, the last time Vesuvius erupted. During that spring of the war, American pilots stationed near Salerno first heard a sound like a detonating bomb. By Sunday night, according to one diary, “the roars became more frequent, and grumbled like a lion.” All during the night, streams of fire shot into the air, and although hardly anyone was killed, the wings of some of the grounded bombers melted in the heat. The earth bellowed, someone wrote, and Vesuvius panted like someone gasping for breath and black stones pounded the trees and tents and, on the night in which nearly everyone in the end was safe, the whole world seemed aflame.
Excerpted from A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape by Matt Donovan. Copyright © 2016 by Matt Donovan. Reprinted by permission of Trinity University Press. All rights reserved.
MATT DONOVAN is the author of two collections of poetry – Vellum (Mariner, 2007) and the chapbook Ten Burnt Lakes (Tupelo Press, forthcoming 2017)—as well as the collection of essays, A Cloud of Unusual Size and Shape: Meditations on Ruin and Redemption (Trinity University Press, 2016). His work has appeared in AGNI, Blackbird, American Poetry Review, Gettysburg Review, Kenyon Review, Poetry, Threepenny Review, and Virginia Quarterly Review (More poems and essays can be read online). He is the recipient of a Rome Prize in Literature, a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, a Lannan Writing Residency Fellowship, and the Larry Levis Reading Prize from Virginia Commonwealth University. He is currently collaborating on the chamber opera “Inheritance” with artist Ligia Bouton, soprano Susan Narucki, and composer Lei Liang.