August 14, 2009
If someday you’re somewhere around Naples or the Amalfi Coast, please go to Paestum (about 62 mi / 100 km SE of Naples). Often neglected by foreigners, Paestum is the classic Roman name for the city of Poseidonia, a Greek colony founded in the 7th century BC. Close to the sea, Paestum was dedicated to Poseidon (hence its Greek name) but Hera and Athena were greatly worshipped there too. Because of the fertile soil and strategic position, Paestum rapidly became a large and prosperous city. Grandiose temples were built, and Paestum also became an important place of procession and devotion. In 550 BC a temple was built to honor Hera. A century later, another temple was added to create a huge complex devoted to the goddess. Thousands of offertory statues of Hera were made for the people who came to praise the wife of Zeus. Not too far away, a temple dedicated to Athena was erected (500 BC). All three temples can be seen today. In fact, these temples are ranked among the best-conserved Greek temples in the whole world. Only one temple in Greece is actually said to be better preserved than Paestum’s temples. In addition, the second temple of Hera is considered by some specialists as the most perfectly executed Doric temple in the world because of its architectural details and perfect proportions. The defensive walls and the Heraion, a temple outside the city limits, are worth a visit too.
Beyond the glorious temples that are enough to take your breath away, the archeological site has even more to offer. Whereas in Pompeii you can enjoy the magnificence of Roman wall paintings, in Paestum you can discover the enigmatic Greek frescoes. Roman frescoes were inspired by the art of the Greeks, and some say the Roman copies never attained the level of mastery of the Greeks. However the remains of Greek painting beyond vase-art are almost non-existent. The paintings in Greek temples vanished (actually every Greek statue was painted in vivid colors) and no volcano covered a city as Vesuvius did with Pompeii. Whereas Etruscan frescoes were preserved because they painted the walls of underground tombs, the Greeks did not have the custom of painting the insides of tombs. But in Paestum, because of the contact with Italic peoples, the Greeks acquired this custom of painting the insides of tombs.
Good for us, because in 1968 a tomb was found in a small necropolis in Paestum. The tomb of the diver (tomba del tuffatore) dates from the first half of the 5th century and is “the only example of Greek painting with figured scenes dating from the Orientalizing, Archaic, or Classical periods to survive in its entirety. Among the thousands of Greek tombs known from this time (roughly 700–400 BC), this is the only one to have been decorated with frescoes of human subjects” (Holloway, The Tomb of the Diver, American Journal of Archaeology, Vol. 110 n. 3, 2006). The frescoes found inside the tomb were first thought to be Etruscan because as I told you there is no evidence in Greece of painted tombs. Also the diver in this enigmatic fresco is a subject that is absent in other expressions of Greek art such as pottery painting, but there are some examples of this subject in Etruscan art. The fresco that covered the lid of the tomb depicts a diver in the act of jumping, and there’s a huge debate about what it represents. Some say it is a representation of the deceased jumping into the afterlife. On the walls of the tomb, scenes of a symposium were depicted.
The symposium, the all-male drinking and debate party, was a Greek social institution and therefore is a familiar scene in Greek art; for example Greek pottery of that time showed similar scenes. The symposium scenes and the techniques employed advocate a Greek manufacture of the tomb (not to mention that the tomb was built during the Golden Age of the Greek city). It is known that Paestum kept commercial contacts with the Etruscans, so it’s not that strange that they were influenced by them in some aspects.
If you visit the National Archeological Museum of Paestum, which is next to the temples, you can take a look at this tomb together with other frescoes of later tombs dating from the period of the Lucanians (a native people from the mountains that conquered the city by the end of the 5th century). I was so impressed by the frescoes that I had to sit and admire them for a long while. Sometimes I think it’s hard to really impress me, but Paestum certainly did with its glorious temples and truly amazing frescoes.
Because archeology is hard work, sometimes it is not easy to know what the thing you’re excavating was for. So, don’t get confused if you see that the first temple of Hera is sometimes called the Basilica, that the second temple of Hera is sometimes called the temple of Neptune, and that the temple of Athena is sometimes called the Temple of Ceres. It’s just that for example the temple that now seems to be dedicated to Athena was first thought to be dedicated to Ceres.
The temples survived because in the middle ages this area was a big swamp and people were afraid of malaria!