The Magazine

Up from the Ashes

Pompeii’s second life, in fact and fiction.

May 26, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 35 • By JAMES M. BANNER JR.
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Probably in the seventh grade, Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii appeared on my summer reading list. I read the 1834 novel of ancient Roman life, adventure, mystery, and horror with the rapt attention of a boy drawn to a fictitious tale (which I doubt I knew was fictitious). But even had I escaped the book, could I have possibly escaped that portentous title, by which the Western world, since Bulwer-Lytton’s day, has known of the volcanic explosion that buried parts of the Neapolitan region in 79 a.d.? Like the cloud that once hung over Vesuvius, and has many times hung there again, that book, and the Karl Briullov painting that inspired it, hovers over all subsequent attempts to get at the genuine story of that far-off eruption and its continuing significance—“this combination of beauty and danger,” in Ingrid Rowland’s words, that clings to the place still.

‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ by Karl Briullov (1830-33)

‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ by Karl Briullov (1830-33)

Rowland, who could probably write another entire book about what’s known of the geologic and historical realities of the Bay of Naples in the first century—about pyroclastic flows and lapilli—has chosen to put Bulwer-Lytton’s last-days conceit behind her and, instead, capture what she can of the “afterlife” of the Vesuvian explosion. A nice term, that “afterlife”—better than what one historian has termed “after-history,” as if there can be such a thing. Like all events and human lives, this one had its own reality, and then its following life, made up of what has been preserved, rediscovered, recalled, and simply made up (as was Bulwer-Lytton’s tale) for later consideration. But until 50 or so years ago, historians still wrote only about lives and events, not much about the history of the memory, reconstruction, or our reimagining of events after they happen. That’s all changed in our day. From Pompeii fits snugly inside a now-large body of literature about the afterlives of just about everything that interests historians.

There’s probably no one more qualified to have a go at this subject than Rowland. A member of the faculty of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture in Rome, and a historian of the Renaissance and early modern Europe, she’s the polymathic author of books on Giordano Bruno, Roman gardens, and forgery, among other subjects. She possesses unsurpassed knowledge of whatever she takes up, and this work is no exception. If it sometimes staggers under the weight of detail—some of it repeated, some of it superfluous (must we know that Leopold Mozart misspelled the name of a monastery?)—it will delight any reader who likes the serious laced with the macabre and bizarre, the ancient with the modern. 

Rowland manages to retain a straight face through it all, even when, for example, she tells of the liquefaction and re-solidification of the blood of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples. Humane bemusement at the ways of humans, but never criticism of what she must find hard to credit, underlies every sentence. If, sometimes, her factualism tires us for want of some overall view, we never tire of her deeply knowledgeable entertainment. 

Rowland’s genial, learned travelogue commences, as it must, in the Roman era of the great Vesuvian eruption, but it quickly moves into the 17th century and the first attempts since 79 a.d. to discover what had happened in that fateful year. Her initial hero is Athanasius Kircher, a devout German Jesuit whose religious convictions did nothing to dampen his rationalistic investigation of the causes of the mountain’s explosion, one that wiped out many communities, the most enduringly known, besides Pompeii, being Herculaneum. Though caught, as so many have been, between newly established fact and belief—between the implacable imperatives of research and the summons of religion—Kircher nevertheless pioneered in the geological explanation of Vesuvius’s eruption and (in the view of some) anticipated the basis of what became the science of plate tectonics.

Other little-known figures came after Kircher. Rowland is as much the archaeologist of their stories as they were the excavators of Pompeii’s past. There’s Giuseppe Fiorelli, an early and great practitioner of stratigraphy, the archaeological method of delicate excavation that exposes the minute changes in color and composition of layers of earth and, thus, reveals the age and sequence of under-surface deposits. It was Fiorelli who first understood, then preserved in plaster casts (which still rivet, sometimes repulse, tourists), the remains of people encased forever in their last moments by the volcanic effusions that engulfed them.