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. 

There’s also Bartolo Longo, known now (if at all) as a religious figure but who was, in fact, “a phenomenal organizer and an urban planner, and, as such .  .  . an exemplary nineteenth-century social reformer.” It was Longo’s efforts to bring education, employment, and institutions, as well as the towering Pompeii basilica known as the Sanctuary of the Madonna of the Rosary, into being that transformed the Pompeii Valley from a region of poor villages into the touristy towns beside the excavations we know today.

Finally, there was August Mau, a great, if now-unheralded, scholar who put the art of ancient Pompeii on the historical map by showing that, like the Roman art from which it sprang, it had a strength, beauty, and history independent of the Greek tradition from which it had been thought to be derivative. 

The result of these men’s work was that, in the shadow of Naples (until the 18th century one of the world’s largest and most significant cities, and a center of art and music), arose one of the great tourist sites of the Western world. By the 19th century, especially after the unification of the Italian states into the Kingdom of Italy, Pompeii and Herculaneum were increasingly taken to be national treasures, not least because of the tourist income to be gained by their excavation and accessibility.

It’s one of the pleasures of Rowland’s tour that we get to meet with Pompeii’s visitors over the centuries, as varied a cast of characters as might be dreamed up. There’s the boy genius Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart traveling with his father; Charles Dickens and Mark Twain, the latter of whom would indelibly inscribe his wonderfully skeptical impressions in The Innocents Abroad; Hirohito, pictured here looking out of place in a bowler—a Japanese prince in Italy à l’anglaise; the various film stars, like Ingrid Bergman, Roberto Rossellini, and Sophia Loren, who would use the site as setting; and the millions of nameless tourists, some of them no doubt drawn by word of the erotic art. 

Not to be satisfied with a mere catalogue of those who came as tourists, Rowland, ever the art historian, shows how the art of Raphael and Renoir drew on the draughts of inspiration each found on the walls of the destroyed site’s structures. Pompeii lives in many corners of our world.

Rowland closes her book with reflections about conditions today on the Vesuvian plain and its active human life. It’s a familiar tale of normal human heedlessness. As in the past, the mountain will erupt again (it did most recently in 1944). But this time, even with all the seismic monitoring that’s now in place, well over a half-million people, and Naples itself, will be in peril, and an entire nation will have to be summoned to assist those who can be saved and protect the historic site that stretches back more than two millennia. 

Rowland, with a characteristic light smile in her words, is optimistic that people, artifacts, and natural life will somehow pull through. She accepts, with perhaps a bit too much complacency, the tawdriness, tourism, and traffic that now surround the mountain and its priceless history. Should the labors of those scholars and administrators who have unearthed the riches of ancient Pompeii be buried once again, it would be an immeasurable loss to the world. But, as I think Rowland would say, human curiosity, perseverance, and resilience gave us moderns the site to begin with, and there’s no reason to think that they would not do so again. So, while this is in no sense a guidebook to Pompeii and Herculaneum, anyone planning to visit Italy’s southwest coast will gain from taking Rowland’s fast-paced historical tour beforehand. 

Yet be forewarned: Like too many books these days, whether from an esteemed university press or from a commercial house, it’s short, very short, on what’s essential in any work covering the geopolitical landscape: maps. There’s but a single one here, a plat of ancient Pompeii, so small that the names of its streets are scarcely legible. Rowland leads us around the Bay of Naples, up and down Italy’s west coast, all the while assuming that we know where we are, how the towns and sites she writes about are spatially related to each other, even how and where modern travelers move about the principal archaeological and historic remains of which she writes. In an era when cartography has made such extraordinary advances, the lack of useful maps in books like From Pompeii cannot be justified and, given the number of quite wonderful other illustrations, is not defensible on grounds of cost. It’s a failure of craft and thought, and a serious shortcoming of an otherwise splendid book.

James M. Banner Jr. is the author, most recently, of Being a Historian: An Introduction to the Professional World of History