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Under the Volcano

Herculaneum: Art of a Buried City

by Maria Paola Guidobaldi and Domenico Esposito, with photographs by Luciano Pedicini, translated from the Italian by Ceil Friedman
Abbeville, 352 pp., $125.00
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Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples/Luciano Pedicini/SANP
A detail of a Pegasus under an acanthus scroll from a wall in Herculaneum

The French writer Marcel Brion subtitled his 1960 study of Pompeii and Herculaneum “The Glory and the Grief,” a phrase that captures the enduring mystery of these two ancient Roman towns, both buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The explosion itself was a majestic sight, if not exactly glorious; we have the word of an eyewitness, Pliny the Younger, who compared the pillar of smoke created by the mountain’s pulverized core to an umbrella pine, the soaring, graceful local tree that virtually symbolizes the Bay of Naples.

The umbrella pine was so perfect an image for a volcanic cloud that nearly every later witness to an eruption of Vesuvius has revived it. When the mountain returned to violent life in 1631 after centuries of quiet, the tree-shaped cloud appeared again:

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A vintage postcard of the Bay of Naples, with an umbrella pine in the foreground and Mount Vesuvius in the distance
The smoke narrowed into the shape of an umbrella pine, and gradually increased so much that, as observers have reported, it shot up to three hundred miles into the air—the earth seemed to want to mix with the sky. This was followed immediately by a huge eruption of fiery globes, and then by a subterranean rumbling and crashes like those of horrible thunder, then by continuous flashes and lighting, and then huge amounts of blackish, ashy sand poured forth, which first seemed to present a moist surface, but quickly, as the sun dried it, it changed its color into bright white puffs, rather like silk.1

The volcano’s most recent eruption occurred in 1944, at the height of World War II. The British officer Norman Lewis saw the umbrella pine of smoke, followed by a show of geological pyrotechnics:

Fiery symbols were scrawled across the water of the bay, and periodically the crater discharged mines of serpents into a sky which was the deepest of blood reds and pulsating everywhere with lightning reflections.2

But these glorious, treelike bursts of celestial fire also brought filthy clouds of debris in their wake, and the rotten-egg stench of brimstone. In 1767, William Hamilton, the English envoy to Naples, was caught by a secondary explosion as he explored an actively erupting Vesuvius:

The earth shook, at the same time that a volley of pumice stones fell thick upon us; in an instant, clouds of black smoak and ashes caused almost a total darkness; the explosions from the top of the mountain were much louder than any thunder I ever heard, and the smell of the sulphur was very offensive.

The umbrella pine of smoke and the celestial fireworks provided a prelude to more terrifying cataclysms. In 79, as Pliny the Younger reports, the glorious waters of the Bay of Naples turned into a churning maelstrom (as it emptied, the volcano sent shudders through the earth), and then the mountain spewed its most deadly charge of all: spurts of solid debris suspended in superheated gas. These gaseous suspensions, called pyroclastic flows, behaved like liquid rivers, but they moved much more swiftly than liquids, coursing down the mountainside as fast as a speeding Ferrari, killing every living thing in their path.

In Herculaneum, it was the first of these terrible surges that took the lives of three hundred people huddling at the seashore in hopes of rescue; a few seconds before, it had carbonized all the food, furniture, trees, papyrus books, balconies, shutters, and beams in the city. The scorching blast moved quickly enough to catch the victims by surprise, vaporizing them before they had time to register fear or pain. As the cooling gases of this surge and the ones that followed bled into the atmosphere, the pyroclastic silt they left behind congealed into a dense volcanic rock, sealing Herculaneum away from the rest of the Roman world.

Pompeii, a few miles farther south, stood downwind from Vesuvius on the day of the eruption. The volcano shot out a rain of pebbles called lapilli, fine-ground remnants of the mountain’s exploded core. The airbone gravel blew southward on the volcanic gusts and prevailing winds, piling up in corners and bouncing off roofs and heads before shrouding the city in a layer of rough, reddish gravel. Here, too, a series of pyroclastic surges followed, sweeping through the city on waves of poisonous gas, smothering huddled groups of refugees and a dog on its leash seconds before their muscles shrank on their bones and twisted them into the agonized positions in which excavators would find them centuries later. Like the victims in Herculaneum, these people and the dog had certainly felt dread, and fear, and severe discomfort before they died, but not the actual pain of incineration; nerves and brains dissolved too quickly to register any final feelings.

The inanimate parts of the two cities, on the other hand, survived to a remarkable extent, although some yellow-painted walls turned red in the heat of the pyroclastic surges. Wooden fixtures in Pompeii disintegrated completely (whereas in Herculaneum they were left intact but carbonized), but doors, shutters, and bodies left hollow prints in the hardened volcanic debris that settled around them.

The disaster was great enough to have real effects on Rome itself. It certainly cooled the Roman enthusiasm for vacationing on the Bay of Naples, and one contemporary writer, the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, went so far as to compare the eruption of Vesuvius to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. And though the buried cities had disappeared from view, they never entirely disappeared from memory. A popular novel of 1504, Jacopo Sannazaro’s Arcadia, includes a visionary tour beneath Vesuvius, conducted by a nymph, who tells the hero Sincerus:

The burnt and liquefied stones still bear clear witness to anyone who sees them, and beneath them who would believe that there are populations, and villas, and noble cities that lie buried? Truly there are, and they were covered by ruin and death, like the one that we see here before us, a city once celebrated beyond doubt in your countries, called Pompeii…. Certainly it is a strange and horrible way to die; to see people snatched from the ranks of the living in a second.3

As Sannazaro and his readers already recognized, the glory and grief of Pompeii and Herculaneum haunt us because the mortality of these places, and these people, is ours in equal measure. Vesuvius still rears its sullen gray profile above the Bay of Naples, its rim torn ragged by past explosions: in 79, 472, 512, 1138, perhaps in 1500, just before Sannazaro published his Arcadia, 1631, 1660, 1766, 1822, 1836, and 1944.

Archaeologists in Nola, to the northeast of Naples, have discovered the remains of a hut village on the other side of the angry mountain that was buried by an eruption in the Bronze Age, more than a thousand years before the destruction of Pompeii. By now Vesuvius has stood quiet for too long to foresee a gentle reawakening; when it explodes again, as it inevitably shall, the eruption may well take the violent form of the events in 79 and 1631, with an umbrella pine formation and pyroclastic flows, rather than the gentler spills of lava that appeared at regular intervals in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

The discipline of archaeology began with the generation of Jacopo Sannazaro’s teachers, in the late fifteenth century, but archaeological excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum only began in the eighteenth century; first as a series of private efforts, then under direct sponsorship of the king of Naples and his successors in authority, most recently the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities. Herculaneum was discovered by chance when a peasant dug a well and came up with statues before striking water. The site could only be reached by tunneling downward through layer upon layer of hard-packed pyroclastic debris; it was difficult, dangerous work, carried out by convicts of what one Grand Tourist described as “the rascally and villainous sort.”

Paintings were hacked away from walls; marble, bronze, gems, glass, gold, and cameos were requisitioned for the royal collection. Only the slim and athletic dared to go down the excavators’ shafts in a basket to see the remains of the theater and what came to be known as the Villa of the Papyri; one portly Englishman, William Hammond, wrote in 1732 that he “never cared to venture down, being heavy, and the Ropes bad.”4

By 1748, the finds at Herculaneum had begun to peter out, and the king turned his attention to other sites, including Pompeii. There the piles of lapilli could be moved far more easily than the hard pack at Herculaneum. Furthermore, excavation could take place in the open air rather than down mephitic tunnels. So could the guided tours that quickly became an indispensable part of a visit to Naples. And because the capital city was also a thriving intellectual center, the excavators began to publish their results with admirable dispatch.

As a result, the history of excavation and scholarly publication of these two remarkable sites now extends back nearly three hundred years, from the engraved folios of the royal publication Le Antichità di Ercolano Esposte (1757–1792) to the comparably active work sponsored in recent years by the Superintendency of Pompeii and Herculaneum and the international Herculaneum Conservation Project. At the same time, visitors as disparate as Mozart, Madame de Staël, Dickens, Freud, Renoir, and Picasso have drawn inspiration from the combination of an uncannily beautiful natural setting, an uncanny natural disaster, and the astounding range of human activity captured and preserved among the ruins.

In the summer of 2013, the British Museum brought the buried cities to London in an immensely successful exhibition called “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum,” organized by Paul Roberts, senior curator and head of the Roman Collections, who also wrote the excellent catalog.5 Roberts focused attention on the experience of life in an ancient Roman house, a theme that also guides Herculaneum: Art of a Buried City, a spectacular collaboration among Maria Paola Guidobaldi, director of excavations at Herculaneum, the scholar Domenico Esposito, and the photographer Luciano Pedicini. This large folio volume provides floor plans, detailed descriptions, and evocative illustrations: Pedicini’s careful choice of lighting and viewpoints makes even such well-known objects as the bronze statues from the Villa of the Papyri look startlingly new.

The buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum remain our most complete surviving sources of physical information about ancient Roman domestic life, supplemented by written sources like the architectural treatise of Vitruvius, which tells us how houses were laid out and decorated some eighty years before the eruption. Then there is the cookbook of Apicius, which tells us what went on in the kitchen some three or four centuries later, and the lurid fictional account of a nouveau-riche banquet in the Satyricon of Petronius, which allows us to people the empty, ruined dining rooms of the archaeological sites with an entertaining, if appalling, cast of characters contemporary with the last days of Pompeii. Because our sources are so spotty and so enigmatic, there is always something new to discover about something as complex as an ancient civilization, some point on which to change our mind.

  1. 1

    Athanasius Kircher, Diatribe de prodigiosis Crucibus (Rome: Sumptibus Blasij Deversin, 1661), pp. 30–31. 

  2. 2

    Norman Lewis, Naples ’44: A World War II Diary of Occupied Italy (Carroll and Graf, 2005), p. 93; letter of March 19, 1944. 

  3. 3

    Jacopo Sannazaro, Arcadia (Venice: Aldus Manutius, 1534), pp. 77–78. 

  4. 4

    William Hammond, letter published in “An Account of the Discovery of the Remains of a City Under-ground, Near Naples, Communicated to the Royal Society by William Sloane, Esq., F.R.S.,” Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Vol. 41 (1739–1741), p. 345. 

  5. 5

    The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu presented an exhibition on Pompeii’s impact on modern culture a few months earlier: “The Last Days of Pompeii Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection,” September 12, 2012–January 7, 2013. 

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