When Mount Vesuvius erupted in A.D. 79, Pliny the Younger, an ancient Roman author and natural philosopher, watched the disaster from Misenum, a town across the Bay of Naples.
The natural disaster annihilated ancient Roman cities along the Bay of Naples, covering bustling cities rich in Roman culture with ash and molten lava.
A little more than 1,900 years later, university graduate architecture students are surveying the area to find more effective ways to present these historical sites for visitors.
The local government in the Campania region invited the university, along with seven other schools, three American and four Italian schools, to work on urban design projects for five archeological sites, said Matthew Bell, associate professor of architecture and vice president of the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation.
The project is part of a long-term effort to create an archeological park to connect all the Roman villas, said Cristina Marcantonio, U.S. office administrator for the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation, which started in 1998 after the Italian Embassy invited the university to participate in the project.
The university is the first school to visit the sites and create a feasible master plan, Marcantonio said.
Scattered among the towns being surveyed are Roman villas, luxurious ancient mansions for the elite. The volcanic eruption buried the villas, and only two have been completely excavated. Most have holes in the walls where thieves stole sections of gold or pieces of frescoes, paintings on the walls of the villas.
The students spent 10 days exploring sites in Stabiae, Pompeii, Boscoreale, Herculaneum and Oplontis, all of which were buried by the eruption and have relevance to Roman architecture, Marcantonio said. They returned Sept. 23.
Though it’s only three miles from Pompeii, Stabiae hasn’t drawn a comparable amount of tourists “because the site is still largely unexcavated, unlike Pompeii, and difficult to reach,” Bell said.
“The regional government wants the students to look at ways that we can physically make visiting these places easier to get to and more attractive,” Bell said. “It’s really an economic development project in the sense that they want to attract more tourist dollars.”
Alejandra Hernandez, 26, who went to Stabiae with the university during winter term 2005, is happy to return to the area.
“It was so exciting to be working on a real project,” Hernandez said. “It was a hands-on experience.”
The university students, along with architecture students from the New York Institute of Technology, the University of Virginia and the University of Miami, were teamed with an Italian university and assigned to survey one or two sites. Each American university was teamed with a different Italian school.
They will spend the first few days analyzing the sites before creating design projects on each site.
At the end of the seminar in December, the teams will present a project of their findings to the officials, and there’s a good chance that “these ideas will be implemented,” Bell said.
The uniqueness of the project has all the students excited to get outside the classroom.
“You don’t have that kind of history here,” Hernandez said. “And for that reason it’s much more romantic.”