The story of the Thousand Names

A beautiful example of the 1832 S.D.U.K.
map of Pompeii (detail). Wikimedia Commons

When I started studying Pompeii, I was soon fascinated not just by its history but also by the names of its buildings. I was surprised to discover that those names often had very little to do with the actual history of the ancient city, and sounded, to me, almost fantastic and strangely evocative. I couldn’t help imagining amusing, dramatic or even vaguely mysterious reasons that might have originated names such as “The black anchor” or “The ancient hunt” or "The magic hands". I became more and more interested in the history of Pompeian place-names; how were they given, and in what circumstances. And I found plenty of anecdotes. Houses named after famous visitors, unusual discoveries, unexpected decorations. I researched how those names changed and how they were sometimes simply misquoted. Some of them survived stubbornly in the common language, even after they had been officially substituted with different ones.

My favourite buildings were those involving animated characters in their names. I liked to imagine them as the invisible inhabitants of the houses; I pictured those characters waiting impatiently until the last tourist had gone away, to start populating the streets of Pompeii. A surreal company that included a Russian Princesses, a Tragic Poet, a mischievous faun and many others. I amused myself imagining their interactions, their relationships, based on the proximity of “their” houses. How happy they could be of being neighbours? Were the Scientists disturbed by Orpheus playing the lyra all the time?I pushed the game to imagine bonds and disputes between the characters mentioned in the names that a single building acquired through time.

I’ve decided to write some short, quick stories to catch glimpses of those narrative suggestions. They are not necessarily good, just my tribute to what I believe is one of the most fascinating places ever. I have stuck to only couple rules. First:  the name of the house has to be the title. In other words, it has to be the focal point of the story, and not just something that gets mentioned en passant. Second: the story has to bear no reference to Pompeii, to the concept of house and, possibly, to classics or antiquity in general. I even challenged myself to choose, in case of ambiguity, the meaning that was the farthest from the one the archaeologists had in mind when they named the house. To consider Mercury a metal instead of a god, for example. Some word-plays work better in one language than another. That’s one of the reasons I’ve been writing in both, Italian, my native tongue, and English, my adopted language.

If you wish to play along, or I just managed to get you curious, you can find a good list of Pompeian names, alphabetically divided, on the website Pompeii in pictures (along with a lot of very interesting visual material about each house). But the best and most complete resource is Van der Pohel Corpus topographicum Pompeianum, that aims at gathering all the attestations ever recorded for Pompeian buildings, even just in minor publications. No need to say, it’s one of my favourite books. Feel free to pick a house name and send me a story. Besides Italian and English, I can read French and Spanish reasonably well. If I like it, I’ll be happy to publish it in the blog (with credits, of course). Welcome to the City of a Thousand Names.


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