Shelley Hales is a lecturer in Art and Visual Culture, in the Department of Classics and Ancient History. Dry stuff, you might imagine. On the contrary, Hales is currently researching the enormous impact Pompeii has had on popular culture since its rediscovery in 1748.
On 24 August 79 AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted over the bay of Naples, wiping out several towns and killing tens of thousands of people. The disaster was witnessed by Pliny the Younger, who was staying across the bay at Misenum, and later wrote an account of the catastrophe in two letters to the Roman historian Tacitus. They make harrowing reading:
“You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognise them [in the darkness] by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for ever more.” Thus began our fascination with Pompeii, although it wasn’t to be uncovered for another 1,700 years.
In 1748, Charles III, then king of Naples, sent military engineers to explore a site called Cività, rumoured to be an ancient city. Skeletons and moulds were found in the earliest excavations and the human stories of Pompeii began to filter throughout Europe almost immediately. The remains of a wealthy woman found in the gladiators’ barracks instantly created the scandal of an aristocratic lady conducting a secret affair with a common gladiator. A group of people who suffocated in the subterranean corridors of a villa included the remains of a wealthy young girl and a man with a large key and money bags – the greedy villa owner and his beautiful daughter, perhaps? All that was left of the girl was the imprint in the ash of her ample bosom.
You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants
On show in the museum, this bosom inspired several authors, including Théophile Gautier, the French novelist, who wrote Arria Marcella (1852) about the bosom’s owner. Falling in love with the imprint, the hero finds himself seduced by her ghost in Pompeii at night, only to have his passion thwarted by daybreak as she crumbles to dust in his hands. These erotic, romantic visions allowed the audience to enjoy the lure of the ruins whilst acknowledging one of the more enduring themes associated with Pompeii, that it was punishment by the gods for the Pompeians’ decadent lifestyle. The single most famous book was Bulwer Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii. Vesuvius erupted on the eve of publication in 1834, providing the most timely publicity.
Pompeii’s ghosts seemed to come increasingly to life as excavations progressed. No more so than the moment in the 1860s when Giuseppe Fiorelli, superintendent of the excavations, first realised a method of ‘resurrecting’ the victims whose bodies had decayed in cocoons caused by hot ash setting around their bodies as they fell.
By injecting these empty cocoons with plaster of Paris, he produced spectacular casts of humans and animals as they died. Pompeii’s petrified victims have continued to provide a crucial emotional and political connection between the humanity of present and past. After the Second World War, Primo Levi, a concentration camp survivor, used a cast of a young Pompeian girl to represent the dead children of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. More recently, after 9/11, the New York Times likened the disaster zone of Ground Zero to Pompeii, whilst the American scientist Charles Pellegrino wrote a book comparing the down-blast that felled the World Trade Towers, with the pyroclastic surges that devastated Pompeii. After Hurricane Katrina’s trail of death and destruction, the headline ‘New Orleans, New Pompeii’, was soon all over the internet. The potential of these allusions that Americans have been creating for themselves has been recognised on several Islamic internet chat sites, where contributors have revived the theme of divine retribution to claim: “The story of the destruction of the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum by Mount Vesuvius are one of the most excellent signs of Allah and his treatment of the disbelievers.” These analogies show how much the classical world still anchors people today.
'New Orleans, New Pompeii' was soon all over the internet
In order to further explore modern reactions to the remains of Pompeii, Hales devised the Casts Project, a national competition for school children, in which students were shown images of the body casts and asked: Does Pompeii matter today? Can we have any connection with the victims of Vesuvius? How should we treat their remains? Should we encourage sentimental connection or look on as objective, scientific observers? As an illustration of Pompeii’s enduring appeal, she was inundated with over 200 entries, including stories, poems, essays, models, paintings, casts, plays, songs and broadcasts. The winning entries will be displayed at a conference Hales is holding later this year.
Called Ruins and Reconstructions: Pompeii in the Popular Imagination, the conference brings together academics and policy-makers with artists who have made use of the theme of Pompeii, such as the novelists Robert Harris and Lindsey Davis, and the artist Victor Burgin.
Ironically, whilst the recent surge of popular interest in Pompeii has seen the city find a wider audience than ever before, the site itself has reached a critical state of decay, and the key players are seriously considering drastic action, including closing large parts of the site to the public and possibly even reburying it. Through the conference Hales is hoping to show the policy-makers of this World Heritage Site how Pompeii continues to be a major source of inspiration to western imaginations, and that it represents far more than just an expensive ruin.
... not sure why, but the website associated with the project is no longer available. Here's some more about the project, though ...