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.
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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