IN POMPEII, a funny thing could happen to you on your way to the forum. Let’s say you were one of those who survived the initial waves of the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD, having dodged the dense hail of lapilli and ash that rained over the town for several hours. Let’s imagine you were one of those who trudged atop three feet or more of volcanic deposits, desperate to find your missing loved ones — or perhaps just out for loot. A new phase of eruption brings on a pyroclastic surge — a vast cloud of superheated gas and rock fragments — that rushes down and sears you, producing a thermal shock that locks your arms up in a boxing pose at the instant of your death. The fine volcanic ash and debris pile up tightly over your corpse, and there you lie for some centuries, high above the water line, tidily decomposing until nothing is left of you but the bones. Yet the hardened volcanic material that enveloped you retains a perfect impression: your limbs in their contorted agonies, your face still screaming, even the contours of your clothes. Nearly two millennia later, enterprising archaeologists appear on the scene who then fill this cavity with plaster, and presto! — you emerge eerily once more in all the intimacy of your final seconds of life. You now embody the Pompeian paradox: preserved at the instant of your annihilation, this cast of your absent body gives the lie to centuries of “the classical” figure, those marble Olympians that defy time and decay, and project the ideal image of an indestructible humanity. You are instead a fragile reminder that life has always been tenuous, the opposite of ideal, and even horrifying in its sudden turns. You embody a moment — eternally.
As Ingrid Rowland reminds us in her new book From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town, notions of the classical shifted from serene and dignified to troubled and obscene thanks to this site. Rich details of everyday life emerged in wall paintings, mundane objects, graffiti, and whole buildings that speak of a wider swath of humanity than the sculptural masterpieces that were the early objective of modern excavations. Where else can you get a sense of the life of the shopkeeper, the trusty freedman, or provincial aspirant to some ridiculous office than in the detritus from the Bay of Naples? The great papyrus finds at Herculaneum have revealed the productivity of Philodemus, a minor philosopher and epigone of Epicurus, busily commenting on works of greater thinkers; his works may well have been left behind in the villa when more important things were carried off to safety. What generations of Christian monks would have troubled to copy out the works of this tireless, tiresome thinker? Being left behind in a burning villa may have, again paradoxically, preserved them.
Walk down the streets of Pompeii; or look at the mirrors, mosaics, lamps, combs, household shrines, latrines, and serving counters; or read the misspelled graffiti expressing the commonplace and crass (“Satura was here,” “I screwed the barmaid”), and you will doubtless feel a certain degree of comfort that humanity has hummed along for millennia in ways not unfamiliar to you — desperate, lewd, mediocre, and pretentious. One can even sneer a bit at the gaudy wall frescoes: their very tackiness and phallic obsessions knock the ancients off their museum pedestals. A view of the erotica in the notorious Secret Cabinet of the archaeological museum in Naples, Italy might well knock you over.
The desire for historical intimacy is why Pompeii, beyond being a premier archaeological site, also became one of the first great destinations of modern tourism. And it is to this aspect of Pompeii that Rowland, professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture in Rome, has dedicated her attentions in the book, which, after a very brief account of the ancient site, gives a far more extensive view of what she terms the “afterlife” of the town. Pompeii is not just a site of excavations, but a region of continuous cultural development nestled near the famous — when not just infamous — Napoli. Campania is a realm where royalist prerogatives and nationalist projects have unfolded and collided; where the Grand Tour, 18th-century Europe’s posh predecessor to our study abroad programs, invaded and wore a long groove in the local economy; where local peasants, artisans, and camorristi have produced, traduced, guided, and schemed; where the miraculous blood of San Gennaro still liquefies and the Madonna of the Rosary still heals; and where looming Vesuvius beckons to those hungry for thrills, science, and the picturesque.
Rowland’s book has a well developed sense of place, which marks it off from various exhibits and publications more geared to tracing the impact of Pompeii on the Western imaginary, such as The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection (appropriately put on in 2012–’13 at the Getty Villa). Rowland’s ambition, announced in her early anecdote about being in Pompeii as a young girl, is clearly to remain rooted in the place, to note its changing colors, contours, and transformations over the centuries. Chapters alternate between the evolution of the excavations and the touristic apparatus that surrounds them on the one hand, and on the other the adventures of particular people — from Mozart père et fils to Mark Twain, Auguste Renoir, and the Emperor Hirohito — who experienced the site in their day. Sweeping, informative if informally organized, and thoroughly committed to its theme, the book could doubtless serve as a garrulous cicerone on a trip to the places it describes.
One needs to read briskly, however, not to notice a certain caprice in the organization of chapters. For example, we might say charitably that Rowland’s avoidance of telling the full story of the notorious Lady Hamilton is proof she is more focused on the Mozarts’ sojourn than on the unlucky love life of Sir William Hamilton — which moved Susan Sontag to write a whole novel (The Volcano Lover). An exhaustive treatment of the region in the 1760s–’90s would doubtless center more on the British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples — a true pioneer in antiquities and volcanology — than the brief visitors, no matter how famous. Her focus on the Mozarts rightly underscores the importance of Naples as a musical center; however, she is forced to use the memoirs of an Englishman who visited the site of Pompeii 11 years later to help us imagine what the Mozarts saw, since they left no written impressions. This seems a bit jimmied up. The account of Hirohito’s visit in 1921 builds up expectations about the role of Pompeii in that man’s life, which get rapidly deflated as the chapter peters out into anecdotes about the Clintons and Queen Elizabeth II. To enjoy this book — and, to be fair, to take it in the spirit in which it seems to have been written — one should read it as a flâneur, expecting to browse, not burrow. You will enjoy Rowland’s detailed observations on painting and architecture, her careful attention to aspects of Catholic culture, her poignant reading of Roberto Rossellini’s 1954 film Journey to Italy, and her personal anecdotes about leading tours in Pompeii in a highly competitive tourist market. There are no interventions of High Theory here, no forays into the anthropology of tourism, no political economies sketched out, tracing complex relationships with charts and graphs. And no doubt, most readers would have it so. Savor instead a view of blooming acanthus, pomegranates, Spanish broom, roses, red poppies, and a rich farrago of cultural ingredients that will convince you: this place is worth a long, slow, luxurious look.
All the same, there are certain peccadillos that betray a lack of philological conscience. Josephus, for one thing, never said that the destruction of Pompeii was a divine punishment of the Emperor Titus for the destruction of Jerusalem. The Jewish historian was a notorious toady of the Flavian regime, and there is but one reference to Vesuvius in all his extant works, which is in fact a promise to relate the death at Pompeii of one of the Herodians in a later chapter (now lost). Instead, one must turn to the fourth of the pseudo-Sibylline Oracles for the assertion that the destruction of Pompeii was a manifestation of divine wrath for killing “the innocent tribe of the pious [i.e., Jews].” (Recently Hershel Shanks has argued a graffito at Pompeii — “Sodom and Gomorra” — may suggest an ancient visitor to the ruined site drew the same conclusion.) Another instance of philological confusion is a brief digression on Saint Paul’s attacks on “fornication,” which leads to some irrelevant explanations of the fornices or porticoes that were the haunts of Roman prostitutes. Paul wrote in Greek, however, not Latin, and was inveighing instead against porneia, which literally means “whoring” (pornē = prostitute), thus a term lacking any architectural reference, to the disappointment of the professor of architecture.
However, such errors will only irk the pedant. And even the pedant will find much to enjoy in this very readable book, which adds many new angles of approach to one of the world’s most fascinating sites. Read it and you will be Orbitzing for a ticket to Naples that very same day.
Richard H. Armstrong is author of A Compulsion for Antiquity: Freud and the Ancient World (Cornell UP, 2005) and the forthcoming Theory and Theatricality: Classical Drama in the Age of Grand Hysteria (Oxford UP).