The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost And Found

By Mary Beard

(Harvard University Press, 360 pp., $26.95)

From Paris to Pompeii: French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology

By Goran Blix

(University of Pennsylvania Press, 310 pp., $59.95)

Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples

By Carol C. Mattusch

(Thames and Hudson: National Gallery of Art, 365 pp., $60)

In the year 79 C.E., Mount Vesuvius erupted, famously burying the ancient city of Pompeii under volcanic ash, where it lay unknown and undisturbed until the eighteenth century. But once the city was opened up to the light of day, first by accident and then by a frenzy of treasure-hunting, the horrifying drama of that apocalyptic event proved irresistible, even if some of the finds were judged disappointing. The terrible fate of the city's residents as they tried to escape, the beauty of the interior decoration of the more opulent houses, the temples and shrines, and the exhilarating obscenities that turned up frequently in both public and private places conspired to evoke a thriving pagan community. This was a community wiped out at the very moment that Christianity was beginning to make itself known in the Roman Empire. The city's apparently wanton lifestyle and the violence of its sudden end came to serve as a symbol of the inexorable rise of the new religion in the face of polytheism.

The last days of Pompeii provided the plot for operas by Pacini and Auber in the 1820s, to say nothing of challenges for stage designers with a penchant for spectacular pyrotechnics. A few years later, in 1834, Edward Bulwer-Lytton summoned up those last days for his lush Victorian novel, and with the advent of cinema the finale of Pompeii could appear before our very eyes. Thirty years ago, a blockbuster exhibition called Pompeii A.D. 79 put all this modern enthusiasm into perspective by tapping into a rich vein of morbid curiosity tempered by human sympathy. Deploying a towering chart depicting layers of pumice, the show demonstrated the horror of being buried alive, and it placed the city's high life and villas alongside the crude realities of shops, brothels, and latrines. Pompeii A.D. 79 revealed scholarship and sensationalism to be natural and congenial allies, as it moved grandly from one important venue to another--London, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, and New York. But it did not go to Washington, D.C.

Then the National Gallery put on its own Pompeii show in the nation's capital. This recent exhibition could hardly have been more different from the previous one. The title and subtitle of the Gallery's event, "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples," explicitly signaled the difference. This was less about Pompeii than it was about luxurious living, above all in the villas overlooking the Bay of Naples considerably to the north and west of Pompeii. The works of art collected there, and the ostentatious display of wealth, have almost completely wiped out the sordid but more human dimensions of Pompeii itself. A whole introductory chapter in the catalogue is devoted to luxury, with a quotation from Coco Chanel at the head of it: "Luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends." Another chapter is devoted to interior gardens, and yet another to art collections.

This exhibition was evidently conceived and planned for an economic environment altogether unlike the one in which it opened last fall. A grim irony overtook the sponsorship that the Bank of America provided for the show, and the high-toned prefatory statement from the bank's embattled CEO, Kenneth Lewis, must remind him now of a happier time. Of course his personal penchant for luxurious living seems to have been a cause of the crisis now facing his institution and others like it. Since the eighteenth century, Pompeii and the villas around the Bay of Naples have been a curiously reliable mirror of Western culture and taste, but this time it is a mirror of the culture and taste that have been cruelly battered since the last months of 2008. If the show at the National Gallery had opened a year earlier, its objects and images would have resonated with affluent collectors and connoisseurs everywhere. Its willful avoidance of the seamier side of Pompeian life would have found its analogue in a flourishing financial system that refused to recognize its own corruption. Now the fiery end of Pompeii may be the only thing to provoke a frisson among viewers.

The antiquity that we see is inevitably the antiquity that we construct out of what we have--the texts, monuments, and artifacts that have survived or been unearthed. Pompeii is important not because it really was all that important, but because we found it. Had we not, there is little in the ancient testimony that would have alerted us to what we were missing. The historian Tacitus reports that Pompeian sports fans engaged in a nasty brawl over a gladiatorial event with their neighbors in Nuceria, and the poet Martial briefly laments the sad fate of Pompeii in the eruption of Vesuvius. Pliny wrote two long letters to Tacitus to describe how his uncle, a polymath of the same name, died while making observations on the eruption, but Pliny did not even mention Pompeii. Without the modern exhumation of the city, Pompeii would mean no more to modern historians of Rome than Nuceria.

Yet we must be grateful. The discovery of the city opened up an unexpected and priceless amalgam of art, civic life, local religion, graffiti, and pornography in first-century Campania, the region at the foot of Vesuvius near the coast. It transformed the culture of Europe. It all began at Portici, a town north of Pompeii, where the Prince d'Elboeuf chose to build a country house in 1711. In the course of digging a well, his workmen unwittingly went straight through the lava flow that had buried the ancient city of Herculaneum at the same time as ash rained on Pompeii. A statue of Hercules, the city's eponymous hero, appeared along with statues of three women who were immediately identified for no good reason as Vestal Virgins. D'Elboeuf transferred the pieces to Vienna to relieve his financial difficulties. His treatment of Herculaneum as a source of useful treasure established the pattern for most of the work in the region throughout the rest of the century.

The Bourbon monarch Charles III (or, in Naples, Charles VII, as the National Gallery catalogue prefers to call him) had married Maria Amalia, who had seen the Vestal Virgins in Vienna. With her encouragement he decided to open further excavation at Herculaneum. This was not anything that could be reasonably described as an archaeological enterprise. It was deliberate plundering, with the recovery of precious objects its sole purpose. The ancient site was brutally disfigured by tunnels, even though D'Elboeuf's people had found nothing less than the city's theater. Johann Joachim Winckelmann, the great German historian of classical art, was appalled by what he saw, and in two open letters in 1762 and 1764 he vigorously denounced what was going on. Charles's first director, the Spaniard Roque Joaquin de Alcubierre, was, according to Winckelmann, "as unacquainted with antiques as the moon with crabs."

Alcubierre's assistant knew that the work was flawed, but he was unable to do much to stop it. The National Gallery catalogue hails this hapless person, a Swiss engineer named Karl Jakob Weber, as the person "to whom we can credit the birth of scientific archaeology." It is tempting to overestimate him because his drawing of the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum provided the architects of the Getty Museum in Malibu with the design for the villa to house the museum's classical collection. In the mid-1990s Weber was plucked from total obscurity when Christopher Parslow devoted an entire book to him. Despite appropriately Herculean efforts, Parslow seems not to have persuaded many people. Weber's name is completely absent from Goran Blix's fascinating new book on the impact of Herculaneum and Pompeii upon European views of antiquity, and it is equally absent from Mary Beard's lively and thorough account of life and culture in Pompeii's final years.

Blix rightly observes that eighteenth-century interest in the two doomed cities was all about buried treasure, and the wonderful subject that he has chosen for himself is the transformation of European interest in the cities throughout the nineteenth century. "The major shift I want to map here," he writes, "is the one from an image of Pompeii as a curious site of artistic treasures, prevalent in the eighteenth century, to the romantic myth of the city as a lost world magically restored by the powers of archaeology. Pompeii is transformed from a grave to be robbed into the image of a lost civilization. " Both Pompeii and Herculaneum, which Blix does not neglect, served as a catalyst and a mirror of European taste.

The initial reaction to the emerging antiquities was by no means positive. The paintings that were gouged out of their walls in Herculaneum and installed in the Spanish king's private cabinet, the Museo Borbonico in Portici, failed to impress the abbe Barthelemy: "All the paintings from Herculaneum prove that those who made them were not great painters." The miraculous floating centaurs on a black background, which are part of the Washington exhibition, seemed to another critic no more than arabesques and lacking in verisimilitude, which is undoubtedly--and gloriously--true. As Blix observes, the art that came out of the Campanian ground ultimately altered the taste of the age: "The excavated frescoes and artifacts often served, when not dismissed, as an inspiration to neoclassical artists emerging from the rosy excesses of the rococo."

Blix's subject is so rich that it is a pity, though perfectly reasonable, that he chose to confine himself largely to French culture. But he manages to find a little space for Goethe, who commented on the elegant ornamentation of household utensils at Pompeii to rebut Diderot's dismissal of such humble objects as unworthy of serious attention. Yet neither man questioned that what really mattered was beauty. Although the buried cities provided an abundance of that, they provided so much more. It was the English antiquarians for whom the aesthetic criterion was much less important. The Society of Dilettanti found its ideal representative at Naples in the British envoy Sir William Hamilton, a collector whose rampant curiosity would have overwhelmed the capacity of any traditional European Wunderkammer. In 1787, Goethe visited Hamilton in Naples in his "secret den of art and junk."

As one of the first to take a serious interest in all the sexual objects at Pompeii, Hamilton believed that he had discovered a priapic cult still surviving not far away in Isernia. With his protege Richard Payne Knight, he published in 1786 an extraordinary volume under the title An Account of the Remains of the Worship of Priapus, Lately Existing at Isernia in the Kingdom of Naples. The startling frontispiece depicts an artfully arranged pile of votive phalluses. Hamilton subsequently presented his miscellaneous collection of antiquities to the British Museum. In his desire to make the world of Pompeii known in all its diversity and ugliness, he provided the basis for a nineteenth-century re-appraisal of the Campanian cities not so much as a repository of beautiful objects but as living, pullulating communities that belonged to a lost era and supported a culture quite unlike Queen Victoria's.


It is the long vanished life of Pompeii that Mary Beard evokes in all its detail and complexity in her new book. There is a whiff of Compton Mackenzie in her title, but then anything connected with society on the Bay of Naples, in antiquity or today, will not be far removed from the louche world of Capri in Vestal Fire. It is hard to believe that the world that Beard conjures up is the same one that the National Gallery put on display, because the exhibition sanitized the story beyond recognition. By a strange irony, which demonstrates the mysterious power of Campania to continue to mirror modern tastes, the Gallery turned all the way back to the collecting mentality of the eighteenth century, and it explicitly concentrated on the affluent residents along the bay as collectors. Beard herself has toed the line in this enterprise by contributing an essay on "Art Collections in the Bay of Naples." But in her book she gives us Pompeii itself, with its smells and swill, its sex and superstition, its poverty and pathos. It is a wholly successful evocation, pieced together from a deep knowledge of a frighteningly large bibliography.

Only recently has everything we can know, or want to know, about Pompeii been assembled in seven hundred pages, with accompanying CD and website by J.J. Dobbins and P.W. Foss. Their compendium, called The World of Pompeii, appeared in 2007 and aimed to replace the comprehensive work by August Mau, Pompeii: Its Life and Art, from the end of the nineteenth century. The website for the new book even reproduces a complete text of Mau in the second edition that appeared in 1907. Yet even with this superabundance of information, Carol Mattusch, the curator of the show at the National Gallery, complained in a recent review that the book concentrates too much on Pompeii and its buildings and attends too little to the villa culture around the Bay of Naples. Her complaint illustrates the ambivalence in the National Gallery's Pompeii exhibition. It was substantially devoted to other places than Pompeii and almost exclusively concerned with beautiful works of art. The name of Pompeii is marketable, but the names of Oplontis, Herculaneum, and Puteoli--all exceptionally interesting--are not.

In 1970, the late and much-missed John D'Arms, who led the American Academy in Rome and afterwards the American Council of Learned Societies, published a thorough study of the good life around the Bay of Naples. Italian colleagues so much admired Romans on the Bay of Naples that they reprinted the book after his death along with a valuable selection of his articles on related subjects. D'Arms's work is a historical pendant to the artistic analysis in Mattusch's catalogue, whereas Mary Beard addresses the life, the artifacts, and the terrible fate of Pompeii almost exclusively. The Harvard University Press has given her excellent color plates as well as many black-and-white illustrations. Through her coruscating prose and well-chosen images Pompeii comes alive for the contemporary reader. The combination of squalor and splendor, with ubiquitous public obscenities and highly personal revelations in graffiti on its walls, bespeaks a world very different from the Washington exhibition. One graffito consists of botched elegiacs that appear to be a rare instance of lesbian love poetry.

The glamorous world of the villas on the Bay of Naples had its roots in quotidian activities of every kind. At Pompeii, for example, the house of a certain Lucius Caecilius Jucundus revealed 153 documents that had been originally scratched in wax over a wooden tablet. The stylus left its impression on the wood beneath, and although the wax has now gone the words are still there. Jucundus turned out to have been a busy financier, well characterized by Beard as a combination of "auctioneer, middleman, and moneylender." He not only made decent profits in his lifetime, he also enabled us today to write about Pompeii's economy and the four hundred or so people, including women, who did business with him.

The interest of the eighteenth century in curiosities and fine art had been joined with a proto-anthropological taste for odd customs, particularly for such antiquarians as Hamilton and Knight. Charles III (or VII), who did so much both to expose and to damage Herculaneum, created a Herculaneum Academy that devoted itself to a lavish publication of the finds, and the French edition of this work that began to appear in 1781 found a very receptive audience as France clawed its way out of the ancien regime. Anyone who dines at Le Grand Vefour in Paris can still see on its walls the Campanian legacy to French culture. But if the serried ranks of volumes of Antiquities of Herculaneum were, as Blix realizes, an essential source for the romanticism of the nineteenth century, the real antiquities on the ground had to wait for the serious archaeology that Giuseppe Fiorelli undertook at Pompeii in the second half of the century. It was he who had the inspired idea of putting plaster into the cavities left by the decay of the corpses of those who died in the eruption. The casts of the victims, both human and animal, caught in the moment of death have made their tragic fate uncommonly vivid after almost two thousand years.

Without Fiorelli, the comprehensive survey of August Mau would not have been possible. Much of what Mary Beard describes in her book was known in the twentieth century, but the more scabrous and indelicate items were kept secluded in cabinets for much of the century, and were accessible only to those with authorization or bribes. In our present liberated age, everything can be told and seen. Beard gives a full-page image of the unparalleled painting of the fertility god Priapus weighing his immense distended penis in one pan of a scale that is evenly balanced on the other side by a large money-bag. This picture is emblematic of the issues raised by the National Gallery's exhibition, not least because it does not appear there. The ageless competition between wealth and sex has never been more strikingly displayed than in this image. It was a competition that mattered greatly along the Bay of Naples.

Beard would like her book to be a helpful guide to visitors to Pompeii, and to that end she provides useful and up-to-date tips--where lavatories, restaurants, and bars can be found, and why one should not get too hot by wasting a lot of time in the Forum. She goes on to observe correctly that "the site administration is under-funded, and this means that some of the buildings you will want to see will be locked." This warning points to a perennial problem with the site, as well as to an issue currently raging in Italy over the proper management of its cultural heritage. Some Italian scholars have recently proposed a privatization of the state's cultural property on the model of American museums, and, in the case of the parlous condition of Herculaneum, the Packard Humanities Institute has already come to the rescue with a large long-term grant. In his contribution to the National Gallery catalogue, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, the special soprintendente for the archaeological remains of Naples and Pompeii, makes appropriate acknowledgment of this grant.

The cooperation of the Italian authorities in preserving and presenting the treasures in their care is naturally an indispensable part of current research on Pompeii and the Campanian villas. Both the Washington exhibition and the book by Mary Beard would be inconceivable without such cooperation, and it is heartening to find that not only Guzzo but also Stefano De Caro, General Director for Italy's archaeological heritage, have contributed to the National Gallery's catalogue. We have come a long way from the archaeological exploitation of the eighteenth century. The objects and the buildings that came to light then have not changed, but what happened to them in the two succeeding centuries tells us at least as much about modernity as it does about antiquity.

G.W. Bowersock is Professor Emeritus of Ancient History at the Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton.

By G.W. Bowersock