On Aug. 24, A.D. 79, from his villa in Misenum, near Naples, the learned Pliny the Elder — whose “Natural History” is one of the great encyclopedic works of antiquity — noticed a cloud of unusual size and appearance. It appeared to be issuing from Mount Vesuvius. As his nephew Pliny the Younger later wrote to the historian Tacitus:
“The pine tree, rather than any other, best describes its appearance and shape, for it rose high up into the sky on what one can describe as a very long trunk, and it then spread out into what looked like branches. . . . Its appearance varied between white on the one hand, and grimy and spotted on the other, according as it had thrust up earth or ashes. My uncle, most learned man that he was, realized that this was important, and should be investigated at closer quarters.”
In short order, the elder Pliny “ordered a fast-sailing ship to be made ready” and set off for closer observation at Stabiae, where he stopped to eat and even take a nap. By this time, Vesuvius was pouring out flames, while grit and pumice soon began to fill the courtyards of fashionable villas in Stabiae and the nearby towns of Herculaneum and Pompeii.
The napping Pliny was then awakened, for by now, continues his nephew, “the buildings were shaking with frequent large-scale tremors, as though dislodged from their foundations” and “seemed to shift now one way and now another, and then back again.” The inquisitive naturalist, finally aware of the danger, persuaded everyone in his party to make a dash for the sea, despite the rain of pumice and debris. “They used strips of cloth to fasten pillows on their heads as a protection against falling stones.” Alas, the scholarly but out-of-shape Pliny collapsed and died on the beach, probably overcome by the noxious gases and smoke.
Meanwhile, his nephew notes, panic was spreading back home in Misenum, as day turned to night: “You could hear women moaning, children howling, and men shouting; they were crying out, some seeking parents, others children, and others wives, or recognizing them by the sound of their voices. Some were lamenting their own misfortune; others that of their families. A few in their fear of death were praying for death. Many were raising their hands to implore the gods, but more took the view that no gods now existed anywhere, and that this was an eternal and final darkness hanging over the world.”
When true daylight finally reappeared, the exhausted survivors were “confronted with a scene of universal change, for everything was buried by deep ash, as though by snow.”
This is just part of the classic account of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, which destroyed the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. While Ingrid D. Rowland briefly describes this earth-shattering event, her principal interest lies in what happened afterward. “From Pompeii” traces the Renaissance’s archaeological rediscovery of that ancient city and nearby Herculaneum, discusses their gradual emergence as tourist destinations in the 18th and 19th centuries, and proffers short accounts of some of the distinguished scholars, musicians, artists and moviemakers inspired by their visits to these haunted sites.
Its historical breadth and richness notwithstanding, “From Pompeii” is a surprisingly intimate book. Rowland begins with her first encounter with Herculaneum as an 8-year-old with a Brownie Starmite camera. She refers occasionally to the philosopher-magus Giordano Bruno, whose biography she has written. A dust jacket note reminds us that she lives in Rome . “From Pompeii” is thus a personal, even idiosyncratic introduction to Pompeii in the mode of, say, the novelist E.M. Forster ’s “Alexandria: A History and a Guide.” You never quite know what Rowland will talk about next.
Thus, her second chapter discusses Naples’s cult of San Gennaro, who is credited with protecting the city from a later eruption. The third chapter focuses on the 17th-century antiquary and Jesuit Athanasius Kircher, sometimes described as “the last man who knew everything.” Kircher’s masterwork, “Mundus subterraneus” — the “Subterranean World” — summed up three decades of geological research, with volcanoes featuring prominently. The image of Vesuvius that he produced in his text — based on his own drawings — became “the definitive cross-section of a volcanic cone for centuries to come.”
Rowland keeps up her wonderful digressiveness throughout. In her account of Leopold Mozart’s visit to Naples and environs, with his teenage son Wolfgang in tow, she pauses to spend a page on castrati and then several on the British ambassador and volcanologist Sir William Hamilton (whose life was fictionalized in Susan Sontag’s “The Volcano Lover”) and the learned Don Raimondo di Sangro, who — besides being a member of the baronial aristocracy — “conducted chemical experiments, invented powerful cannons, and collected curiosities.”
This aristocratic Freemason even wrote “an essay on quipu, the knotted belts that served the Incas as documents” and constructed “anatomical machines,” i.e., full-scale models of the male and female body that were so lifelike that for centuries it was rumored they were actually servants of Don Raimondo into whom he had injected some kind of alchemical preservative.
One of my favorite chapters focuses on Karl Bryullov’s gigantic history painting “ The Last Day of Pompeii ,” which made its young Russian creator famous and helped inspire Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s similarly titled novel, “The Last Days of Pompeii” (1834). Rowland duly summarizes its plot and that of “Pompeii,” Robert Harris’s 21st-century treatment of the same theme (though confessing that she couldn’t bear to read one gruesome scene of torture).
Like many of my generation, I know only the Classics Illustrated comic-book version of Bulwer-Lytton’s novel, which I discovered at age 10 or so: It climaxes, unforgettably, when a blind servant — who, unlike the sighted, can readily thread her way through the volcanic darkness — courageously saves her master and his beloved.
Still other sections in “From Pompeii” relate the reactions of Charles Dickens and Mark Twain to the ruins, the life of the philanthropist (and creator of New Pompeii) Bartolo Longo, the visits of the painter Renoir and the Japanese prince Hirohito, and even the use of Pompeii in Roberto Rossellini’s film “Viaggio in Italia.” This movie turns on a trip to the recovered city and a subsequent religious procession that together save the troubled marriage of an English couple played by George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman.
Mount Vesuvius last erupted in 1944, but scientists warn that its next explosion is likely to be particularly violent. Yet, long before that event, Rowland warns, Pompeii could “fall to pieces bit by bit, suffering gradual death by entropy and neglect.” Because of excessive rains caused by climate change alone, Pompeii’s buildings have been undermined to the point of collapse.
So, Rowland closes, perhaps inevitably, on a slightly somber note. But if you have any interest in Pompeii, or in entertaining scholarship, or in Italian culture, you’ll want to set aside a few evenings for this deeply engaging work of popular history.
Dirda reviews books for Book World every Thursday.
The Afterlife of a Roman Town
By Ingrid D. Rowland
Belknap/Harvard Univ. 340 pp. $28.95