AS THE SURVIVAL of so much at Pompeii is due to the eruption of Vesuvius, so that of the great temples at Paestum is owed to a more gradual scourge: malaria.
Paestum, at the southern end of the once rich plain of Sale on the Gulf of Salerno, was colonized by Greeks in the seventh century BC.
The original name, Poseidonia (city of Neptune), implies her importance as a port. In about 400 BC the city fell to the Lucanians, who were driven out by other Greeks in 332, only to return in 326. The Romans, who took the city in 273, renamed it Paestum.
Their city flourished in its turn. In AD 370 no less a relic than the body of Saint Matthew was brought to Paestum, but in the centuries that followed malaria took hold and the site was gradually abandoned.
The Norman king, Robert Guiscard, removed marble from the surviving edifices for use in his great cathedral of 1076–85 at Salerno. Shielded by woods, the temples were known to scholars, but it was only in the eighteenth century, when Antonio Joli and others depicted them, that Paestum came to wider notice.
However it is approached, the visitor comes first to the walls, 4,750 metres in circuit, which enclose an area roughly oblong but cut diagonally across the north-western corner to follow a stream.
The Greek line of the walls was restored by the Lucanians and the Romans.
They are of large limestone blocks and stand to a height of up to seven metres, reinforced by a series of flanking towers.
The circuit can be followed by road or on foot; there is less traffic on the north-western section.
It is, of course, the temples that draw the tourist. These lie in the centre of the town, west of the modern road that cuts across it from the Porta Aurea on the north. The entrance to the site is opposite the group of modern buildings and near the northernmost of the three extant Doric temples, the so-called Temple of Ceres.
But before examining this it makes sense to walk to the southern end of the architectural area to examine the so-called Basilica, the oldest of the temples, built soon after 550 BC, and originally dedicated to Hera.
The order is Doric, and all fifty of the original columns survive. A little to the north is the larger and yet more splendid Temple of Neptune.
This was constructed in about 450 BC and is among the best preserved of all Doric temples, majestic in its discipline, both of proportion and detail. The honey-coloured travertine stone is of a particular beauty, responding to the natural light – in September when the sun sets almost directly to the west one can imagine that it is on fire.
Further north is the area of the Roman forum with the small Italic temple, built at the time of the Roman conquest and partly despoiled by the Normans. The other Roman buildings are for the most part poorly preserved, their charm due to the beauty of the place with its shading trees. The forum is crossed by the decumanus maximus. Continue north, following the Via Sacra, back to the Temple of Ceres, which was originally dedicated to Athena. This was built not long before 500 BC and in many respects adhered to the style of the Basilica.
Its smaller scale may in part explain why the temple was converted into a church in late Roman times.
Across the road from the site is the excellent Museo di Paestum.
Of particular importance are the metopes and the archaic frieze from the nearby sanctuary of Hera. The finds from Paestum itself are of considerable interest.
And the extraordinary depiction of a boy diving on the lid of the so-called Tomb of the Diver is among the most vivid images to survive from antiquity.
Because Paestum was so effectively pillaged for its benefit, Robert Guiscard’s Duomo at Salerno is a fitting sequel for the sightseer.
The great campanile is a masterpiece of the Norman Romanesque. The Normans’ exploitation to the ruins of antiquity is seen not only in the columns used for the atrium of the Duomo and in the sarcophagi, many adapted as tombs with inscriptions or coats of arms, ranged round the colonnades of this and in the church itself: for the lavish use of porphyry and other precious marbles in the two pulpits, the fine candlestick and other early fittings was made possible by the ready availability of spoil from Roman monuments.
The substantial crypt is notable for the frescoes of scenes from the life of Saint Matthew of 1643 by the Neapolitan Belisario Corenzio, who exploited the irregular compartments of the vaults with much ingenuity.
The Museo Diocesano behind the Duomo is justly known for the remarkable series of ivory panels, including forty-four biblical scenes and representations of apostles and other saints. Their original arrangement is as yet to be established. What is not in doubt is that these were produced in a local workshop about 1120–40.
Among the pictures are the only signed work by the main Neapolitan follower of Giotto, Roberto Oderisi, his Crucifixion from San Francesco at Eboli, and the Deposition which has some claim to be the most sophisticated panel by Andrea da Salerno, the leading High Renaissance painter of the area.