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Visiting Pompeii through the Centuries



Rob Hardy


We think of Pompeii as frozen in the year 79 A.D., and maybe it was indeed inert until people started digging around the site in the eighteenth century. From then on, the place has inevitably changed, as people dug in it and restored it to their way of thinking, fantasized about it, took parts of it away, and made it fit for the thousands of visitors who came to wander its streets. It is this story that is told in From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town (Belknap/Harvard) by Ingrid D. Rowland. The author is a professor at the University of Notre Dame in Rome, and her chapters are essays on aspects of the city. Some of them are personal, like her memories of being taken to the area when she was a child (there is a picture here of her as an eight-year-old in Herculaneum, with a Brownie camera dangling from her neck) or her experiences in taking commercial tours from Rome to the region where she has conducted more serious academic tours. While the chapters are chronological, Rowland is a digressive and often witty writer, who obviously enjoys relating facts in a more informal way (nonetheless, there are plenty of footnotes). "This book presents a selection of visitors whose lives were forever altered by their experience of Pompeii, as well as a few who reacted less drastically." While there are plenty of references to the city, its history, and its archaeology, the story of its afterlife proves to be colorful, frustrating, and funny. 




Pompeii's discovery came after Herculaneum was being dug up, and by 1765 tour guides had added Pompeii to their repertoires for people coming to see the region around Naples. If you wanted to see Herculaneum, you had to descend into dark tunnels on ropes. One portly visitor wrote that he "never cared to venture down, being heavy and the ropes bad." Pompeii was different; tourists could take a pleasant carriage ride to the site and walk around it, and with excavations in progress, they might even see the archaeologists make a discovery on the very day of their visit. The director of excavations at the time realized that tourists were coming from Naples and were having to hasten back after only a brief view. He petitioned the king that an inn might be built specifically for them. The changes for moderns reached a peak in the work of Bartolo Longo, a lawyer who first visited the site in 1872. He came to be an estate manager for the aristocrat who owned the region around the ruins, but rather than exploiting the tenants further, he wondered how their lot might be improved. He was one of the admirable social planners the late nineteenth century produced. Confronting such problems as pestiferous mosquitoes and crime from the Mafia-like Camorra organization as well as freelance bandits, he eventually set up the town "New Pompeii." The new town had tourist accommodations and practical housing for the workers, and Rowland, who obviously admires Longo, says, "Since the nineteenth century, every single visitor to Pompeii, ancient site or modern city, has benefited from the work of this remarkable man." He built the Sanctuary of the Madonna of Pompeii, which was declared a major pontifical basilica in 1901 by Pope Leo XIII, who was a fan of Longo's work. Leo's successor, Piux X, was not, perhaps distrusting Longo as a layman who should not have been responsible for religious institutions, or perhaps because of regional prejudice. There was literally an inquisition, and (surprise) the Vatican took over. But Longo made Pompeii a destination for visitors, not just a side trip from Naples, and he boosted the citizens of New Pompeii into the middle class. 




Much of Rowland's book has to do with visits to Pompeii by famous people. The fifteen-year-old Mozart went in 1770, accompanied by his father, to see what sort of audience he could drum up in Naples, now that he was losing his draw as a child prodigy. They found the city satisfied with its indigenous musicians, but they did get to dine with Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to Naples. Although the visit was a musical one, probably Hamilton discussed with the Mozarts his ideas on volcanology (he was an expert on Vesuvius), and probably did not talk about his other passion, phallic cults. Neither of the Mozarts wrote details in their letters home about their trip through Pompeii, but it is often said that Mozart's visit to the site, especially the Temple of Isis, helped inspire parts of The Magic Flute. But Rowland admits, "How exactly are we to recognize the reflection of an archaeological site in a musical composition?" Pompeii definitely inspired the Russian artist Karl Pavlovich Bryullov, who came to Italy to study art, and visited Pompeii in 1828. He was sketching madly in the ruins and formed the idea for a monumental history painting, The Last Days of Pompeii, a gigantic, colorful, and dramatic picture of people fleeing through the streets as the mountain exploded. You can even find within the ruins the actual intersection which is depicted in the painting. The name of the painting was lent to the most famous novel of Edward Bulwer-Lytton, in which characters say things like, "Ho, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?" The 1867 novel, which seems to insert Victorian speech and views into the doomed city, was a bestseller, and it used to be (seriously) recommended for those who were making their first visit to view the ruins. 




Dickens visited in 1845, and wrote a description in Pictures of Italy which movingly could describe the ruins as we see them even now. He was moved by imagining all those Pompeians wiped out by Vesuvius, but he was disturbed by the Neapolitan cult of the dead. There was a belief that taking care of the bones in the catacombs beneath the city would please their former owners now in Purgatory, who would thereby intercede on behalf of the caretakers. Mark Twain visited in 1875, and in Innocents Abroad wrote acerbically about the Neapolitan belief in the miraculous liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro which helped draw money from onlookers (he'd chuckle to know that the blood is still performing this function). Like Dickens, he was more moved by the ruins of Pompeii itself, and he was inspired by the figure of the "Steadfast Soldier," a guard whose skeleton was found in his guard-box, refusing to abandon his post just because a volcano was raging. Many other moralists at the time admired the Steadfast Soldier; there is, however, no evidence that the skeleton was any more than some unfortunate Pompeian, fleeing with all the others, who ducked under an arch, not into a guard-box, for shelter. 




Pierre-Auguste Renoir visited Italy in 1881 after struggling in Paris for twenty years, and was inspired by the classical paintings he saw and by the light. He admired the frescoes from Pompeii that he saw in the National Museum in Naples and on site. His paintings became brighter and more sculptural because of them. Visiting in 1921 was Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan, riding a battleship into the Bay of Naples. Pompeii was a stop on his last day of a European tour. He was impressed by the ruins, but unfavorably compared the black, jagged peak of Vesuvius to his beloved symmetrical cone of Mount Fuji. In 1994, Hillary Clinton refused to be satisfied with seeing just Herculaneum, and got into Pompeii, although her tour was abbreviated. Secret Service agents went before her room by room to make sure everything was safe, and their protectiveness extended to preventing her from entering a room in the beautiful House of the Vettii where there is a famous statue of the god Priapus with his enormous phallus. This was not going to be a photo op. 




In Rowland's vivid telling, Pompeii proves to be a very lively place indeed. And still the ancient streets are alive with guides and tourists. Buying and selling and arguing go on nearby, just as they did two thousand years ago. The other constant is Mount Vesuvius, which is now overdue for an eruption, and it is quite possible that the whole place will be buried again, along with much of the the surrounding area along the Bay of Naples. The Neapolitans are skeptical about government, and there is every reason to believe that any evacuation plan, even with scientific warnings the ancient Pompeians never had, is going to leave thousands behind when the volcano blows. "There is simply no way to escape the discrepancy of scale between Vesuvius and human beings," writes Rowland. "It is one of the reasons that Pompeii pulls so on our imagination." 




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