TRAVEL / Lap of the Gods: Great Civilisations of the World: 3 Magna Graecia

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The Independent Culture
WHEN the art of classical antiquity became the rage in the mid-18th century, fashionable Europe and most of its artists flocked to Italy. Though Rome was their Mecca, many went also to Naples, from where they could easily visit the recently discovered remains at Pompeii and Herculaneum. Some ventured further, to the Greek temples of Paestum, the ancient city whose ruins lay in the desolate marshland at the southern end of the bay of Salerno.

Bandits and malaria were an ever-present hazard, but there is no hint of such danger in the romantic scenes depicted by Piranesi, Thomas Major and others. In these, the great temples, adorned with abundant foliage, are peopled by gentlemen in wigs, pointed hats and lace cravats, and picturesque peasants in bobbled caps; and most strangely, buffalo graze in the temples. It was replete with this vision that, two-and-a-half centuries later, I arrived at Paestum.

I did not expect everything would still be as an incurable romantic might wish. After all, the marshes had been drained, acres of tomatoes were being grown in the region, the archaeologists had long been at work and a museum had even been built to house their findings. Finally, there had been the Second World War, when the Allies had landed at Paestum.

However, Norman Lewis's poetic description of the temples in the aftermath of one of the greatest invasions in history reassured me. 'We looked out . . . on a scene of unearthly enchantment. A few hundred yards away stood in a row the three perfect temples of Paestum, pink and glowing and glorious in the sun's last rays. It came as an illumination, one of the great experiences of life.' This evocation of place harmonised so well with the 18th-century mental image I had long nurtured that when I finally got there, I was stupefied.

The whole place had been tidied up and the temples stripped of their verdant foliage. They were now surrounded by ordered gardens, bordering on municipal, but for cypresses and oleanders. The people had changed; there were far more of them, wearing far fewer clothes. Not far from the temples, there was now a road, bisecting the site and lined with shops selling postcards and a large selection of hideous souvenirs. Almost immediately, however, I came under the spell of the dignified and massive beauty of the great temples rising from their sun-bleached plain, like a forest of honeyed stone. Under the harsh chrome sun, the jagged mountains on the far side of the bay were almost black, throwing everything into sharp relief.

Perhaps in homage to the ancient city's 'twice flowering roses', so beloved of Roman poets, there is now a rose garden at Paestum. The city was once famous for its sweet-scented roses and violets, which were used in its profitable perfume industry. I like to think that the making of perfume was a legacy of Paestum's founders, the rich and luxury-loving Sybarites, who settled the city around 700 BC, calling it Poseidonia in honour of the sea god. For a people reputedly dedicated to banquets and lolling about on scented beds, this was a not an inconsiderable achievement.

Defensive walls, pierced by gates at the compass points, still surround the ruins - which, apart from the temples, are largely Roman. I had imagined a row of three temples, but in fact there are building remains between the two earlier temples and the later temple of Athena, which sits gracefully alone on a small hillock. The two earlier temples are now thought to have been dedicated to Hera, goddess of fertility. The first (the so-called Basilica or Hera I) was built in the sixth century BC, when the Parthenon was still wooden; it stands roofless but solid, its huge and bulbous columns creating an effect reminiscent of the much earlier hypostyle hall at Karnak in Egypt. If ever evidence were needed of Egypt's contribution to early Greek temple architecture, surely it is here. Next to it stands the fifth- century temple of Neptune (Hera II), one of the best-preserved temples of Magna Graecia.

The temples had been turned into churches long before Paestum was abandoned to the Saracens and the malarial marshes in the eighth century AD. The inhabitants of Paestum now settled in the hills at nearby Capaccio Vecchio. Here they built a church dedicated to the Madonna of the Pomegranate. To this day, in annual processions that honour the Virgin, model boats with flowers are carried; so it was in antiquity, when such models were carried by procession of 'flower-bearers', girls who took part in the temple ceremonies in honour of Hera, whose sacred symbol of fertility was the pomegranate. In the museum, there are small terracotta figures once dedicated as offerings at Hera's sanctuary; some hold model boats filled with flowers, others represent Hera, who holds a baby in her left arm and in her right hand a pomegranate.

As I wandered through the Roman city centre, with its forum, baths and partial remains of an amphitheatre, my interest waned. It was not that they were not impressive or not an interesting reminder of Roman civic life, but my mind was on the Greeks and their remarkable talent for creating beauty, for knowing exactly in which setting to place their temples. It is something that strikes one clearly at nearly every Greek site, even here in Magna Graecia, where one might have expected the nouveau riche of the Greek world to abandon the restraints of convention and perhaps overdo things; but even though their great wealth enabled them to make everything just a little bigger and more luxurious than could their cousins in the homeland, they too built cities and temples of stunning simplicity and grace.

Tired and hot, but deeply happy, I visited the museum and was refreshed by the best ice-cream I have ever had. I studied a superb frieze of sculptures. In these dynamic works, not all of which were completed, is depicted a great part of the unchanging story cycles of Herakles, the Trojan war and various mythological events. Elsewhere a demure procession of smiling maidens, probably Hera's flower girls, stepped timelessly and gently.

To end this day of feasts, I went to the darkened gallery containing the five remarkable wall paintings from an ancient cemetery near the city. One of the tombs found there, which has become known as the Tomb of the Diver, was highly decorated on the inside. The most interesting of the paintings (pictured on page 44) depicts the eponymous and solitary diver, the space empty but for water, two trees and a diving platform; between platform and water is the naked diver, frozen for ever in the moment of flight. It is an extraordinarily compelling work, and for long afterwards I could not stop thinking about it. The diver, strangely reminiscent of a David Hockney, was perhaps between life and death. I was also reminded of Etruscan tomb paintings, though it is thought that these are Greek works of the fifth century BC and perhaps the only surviving examples of such early Greek wall painting.

I had arrived at Paestum in that state described by Rose Macaulay as 'ardent with Ruinenlust'. This is a condition that craves empty, romantic and preferably remote ruins, which cannot normally be found in Italy in mid-summer. But I left with my Ruinenlust sated, for the condition is appeased by any beautiful ruins - and these were exceptional.

As to the buffaloes, they are still there, in nearby pastures. And though, unlike Goethe, another early visitor, one can no longer cross 'brooks and flooded places' or look 'into the blood-red savage eyes of buffaloes', what one can do is eat real mozzarella, rich and creamy, made of buffalo milk and sold at stalls on the road north of Paestum.


GETTING THERE: Fly to Naples via Rome with British Airways (081-897 4000) from pounds 230 return until the end of March, or with Alitalia (071-602 7111) from pounds 242 return.

GETTING AROUND: Paestum is about 90 minutes on the train from Naples, return fare about pounds 15. The train journey from Rome is about 4 hours, return fare about pounds 24. Or hire a car from Avis (081-848 8733) or Budget (0800 181181) from pounds 210, or Hertz (081-679 1799) from pounds 208 (prices for one week, book 7 days in advance).

TOUR OPERATORS: Martin Randall Travel (081-742 3355) includes Paestum on the itinerary of its Campania lecture tour (19-26 October 1993, 8 days, pounds 1,100).

FURTHER INFORMATION: Italian Tourist Office, 1 Princes Street, London W1R 8AY (071-408 1254).

(Photographs omitted)