Thinking about Mario, Pompeii and the internet

I spent some time with the family wandering around Pompeii at the weekend. It was a wonderful experience; while I’d been there before, it was a long time ago: the technology of archaeology has moved forward apace; and I was twenty-five years older. [We’d gone to Sorrento for our honeymoon in 1984. We decided it would be fitting to go back there for our silver anniversary, this time with the children.]

There were many things I learnt, much that was brought to mind. Some of you probably think I read too much Jane Jacobs (and for that matter, Christopher Alexander) for my own good. So be it. I’d happily re-read The Death and Life of Great American Cities every six months or so; if you haven’t discovered Jane Jacobs stop reading now, go to the book-buying web site of your choice and order pretty much anything by her. Alexander’s A Pattern Language is probably somewhat less accessible, but still definitely worth a read.

So what did I learn?

I learnt that the buildings in Pompeii that had arched and domed rooms and gateways fared much better than the rest.


I learnt that Pompeii was a cosmopolitan place where they’d worked out the importance of using culture-crossing graphics and symbols rather than words.



I learnt that they had interesting models of re-use: for example, they used the fragments of ceramics smashed in the earthquake of 62AD to form and decorate floors:


I learnt that they took real care in their design, making the roads work as rainwater escapes as well: the city was built on igneous rock which was less than perfect as a flood plain. But then it would be hard for people to cross the streets, so they embedded the streets with crossing stones at regular intervals:



I learnt that they used natural materials as cat’s eyes, embedding pavements and floors with reflective stones as shown below:



I learnt that they cared about waste and recycling, saw what they built under the rooms (and for that matter how they reused urine as fertiliser).


I learnt that they had open standards and component architecture. For example, they had 38 different sizes of container for food and drink, and everyone used the same sizes to mean the same things:


I learnt that they did all this with time for beauty and enjoyment in their architecture and layout:


I learnt that they did all this under the shadow of Vesuvius, a fragile and beautiful peace in the presence of danger:


But you know what? I could have learnt all of this from a book. I could have learnt all this from the internet.

Which brings me to the point of this post.

Mario. 65 years old this year. Been doing the job of personal tour guide for 48 years. A wonderful, passionate man, passionate about everything he does, passionate about Pompeii, its history and culture, passionate about archaeology, passionate about learning. Someone who has seen the impact of bad decisions from an archaeological perspective, someone who cares enough to celebrate the learning that comes from those decisions.


All this time I was seeing things in Pompeii, and thinking about the internet.

But Mario changed all that. He saw things in the internet and started thinking of Pompeii.

You see, Mario’s stopping work for a year or two. He’s not retiring, even though he’s 65. He’s going back to school.

Why? Because of the internet. He realises that the internet (particularly the web) reduces the barrier to entry for information and knowledge; that it exposes paucity of knowledge, and raises the bar for standards in professions where knowledge is a form of expertise.

He has seen his colleagues and peers, so-called experts, fail to hold the attention of crowds, as they bleat on about things we can all find out from the web. He is too passionate about his profession, his skills, his way of life to allow the internet to weaken him. He is too passionate about Pompeii, about its history, about his history, to roll over and give up.

So Mario, aged 65, a consummate professional, a passionate expert at what he does, is going back to school.

Because of the internet.

And you know what? He’s looking forward to it.

So I will be back in a few years’ time, to see Mario. To see what he has learnt. And how he keeps ahead of the internet.

In manufacturing we speak of a “China Price”. Maybe Mario’s tale suggests that for knowledge we should start speaking of an “internet price”.

In the meantime, here’s to Mario, and to all the Marios of this world. Passionate about what they do, choosing to embrace and extend the internet.

5 thoughts on “Thinking about Mario, Pompeii and the internet”

  1. JP, are you still in Italy? If so, I invite you to visit me in Assisi (between Rome and Florence), home of Saint Francis. Let me know (email).

    Simone Brunozzi (Technology Evangelist, Amazon Web Services, Europe)

  2. What an awesome story. It’s refreshing to hear older learners talk about their PASSION for learning. Wish we could transplant some of that enthusiasm into some of my students as our school year is just getting underway!

    Great pictures, thanks for sharing!

  3. JP, my first degree was in Mech Eng, and over the years I’ve become more and more interested in ancient technology, and just how smart those people were, especially given the limitations they had with materials, machinery, even maths.

    If you are interested in passive heating and cooling of buildings for example, we have today lost so much that they knew because our solution now is typically to ram powered gear in to fix the problems the architect’s (award winnning etc) design causes rather than design for efficiency and usability from the start.

    What is also fascinating is the “what ifs” – steam power for example was touched on a number of times in the ancient and mediaeval eras. Imagine the shift in history if Greece, Rome, the Khalifate or Byzantium had gone those extra few hard yards……

  4. Hi, My brother and his wife, who live in Australia, invited me to join them in Italy in October, 2007 (and graciously paid for me to join them!). We, also, had the luck of having Mario provide us with a guided tour of Pompeii. As you stated, he was indeed extremely passionate and knowledgeable about the history of Pompeii. The details he provided about life in Pompeii kept us spellbound. He did indeed mention going back to school while we were with him. If any of you have plans to go to Pompeii, you may want to make sure Mario will be there to provide you with his services. The time he spent with us was absolutely worth the price of his passion and knowledge (which my sister in law paid for!). We also have a couple of pictures of Mario. My brother sent me your post about Mario and it brought back wonderful memories. I hope to return to Italy some day and will definitely go to Pompeii if I do make it back there.

  5. Nice to hear from you, Allison, and glad to see that Mario’s been doing his magic for other visitors as well. Corroboration is always good, that’s one of the more useful aspects of social software

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