As a unified republic Italy, at 150, is younger than the United States – but we all know how the country is really far older – and boy does this lady age well! The Roman Empire bequeathed to Italy some of the most evocative relics of an ancient civilization on the planet. While iconic ruins like the Colosseum and Roman Forum are arguably the most impressive, in reality they are just the first leg on a journey into antiquity in all its splendor. Whether you have three days or three weeks, a trip to Italy has the unmistakable potential to be a time machine.
That’s what the experts say, too. “Some of the best-known ancient sites are linked to the great capital cities, as they’re capsules of history embedded in these locations,” says Claire Lyons, Curator of Antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California (the original Getty Museum is modeled after the Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum). She adds that “[most] ruins are excavated to remove the later history — the Roman Forum had at one point become a pasture — and expose one period.”
Why Do We Revel in Ruins?
According to Lyons, “the classical conception of a ruin is the lone standing column; the broken column has had metaphorical status since the 18th century, whether in terms of nostalgia, resilience, or the judgment of history.” But what makes visiting ruins, particularly in Italy, so special? “When you’re talking about ruins,” Lyons says, “it’s the contrast between what is lost and what is retained – in that contrast between ruins and the surrounding landscape, between civilization and nature, there is something quite poetical.”
And sometimes, there’s sheer drama: consider Pompeii, an entire ruined city that lies beneath the none-too-welcoming gaze of volcanic Mount Vesuvius.
No wonder Pompeii tops our (very partial) list of magnificent ruins in Italy…there are too many to count, but if you want to “ruin” your vacation in the best of ways, here are some particularly poetic places to start:
You might not guess it today, but two millennia ago, the Forum was the heart of the action in the ancient world and the nerve center of the entire Mediterranean basin. Stone temples, arches, basilicas, and various monuments to Imperial Roman power stand in silent sentry in this vast site at the heart of Rome. You could spend days roaming its ruins and still only scratch the surface.
If ancient ruins had a centerfold, this would be it: a naked monument to gladiators in combat overdrive and other forms of rowdy ancient amusement (release the lions!). Looming 157 feet above the center of Rome, the Colosseum may be familiar to many but it never fails to fascinate.
One seemingly fine day in 79 AD Mount Vesuvius, a brooding stratovolcano in the Bay of Naples, blew its top, burying the bustling ancient resort city of Pompeii under some twenty feet of pumice and ash. That was – gross understatement alert — bad for Pompeii, but not the worst deal for humanity, for 1,700 years later the rediscovery of the buried city began. The art treasures that came to life are too numerous to mention, and new discoveries are being made all the time. Pompeii is, for Lyons, “the quintessential ruin.” It’s also one Italy’s most popular sights.
Mount Vesuvius did a number on this ancient city, called Ercolano in Italian, in 79 AD too. The nature of the natural disaster that also destroyed Pompeii meant that today you can see some of the best-preserved houses from antiquity here. In both the breadth and the detail, the town is simply spectacular.
Like Pompeii, Paestum is located in Italy’s southern Campania region, and if its story is less dramatic, its artistic legacies are legion. It started as a Greek colony called Poseidonia, and indeed you’ll find the Temple of Poseidon among the well-preserved ruins. The famous ancient Greek Tomb of the Diver fresco is on display at the local museum.
Valley of the Temples, Agrigento (Sicily):
“Southern Sicily was largely off the radar even during the time of the Grand Tour,” says Lyons, “but the ruins there are very suggestive, intact sites where you get a sense of what it was like to be in a sacred space.” One of the temples here dates to 520 B.C.
Villa Jovis (Capri):
“Capri attracts masses of tourists,” says Lyons of the Getty Museum, but it is surprising how few people make the long (but lovely) uphill trek to the remains of the palace of Tiberius on Monte Tiberio.” And “unlike the ‘managed’ tourism at Pompeii, the Villa Jovis sits in isolation with breathtaking views, and relatively few guides or signs to interrupt the visitor’s experience.”
Have you visited any of the places listed? What’s your favorite one? Do you have some to suggest? Leave a comment below and let us know.