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R. M. Peterson
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If one wanted a cicerone for a tour of Pompeii, one could hardly do better than Ingrid Rowland. She has written a handful of other books about matters of Italian history and culture, and as a Professor of Architecture at Notre Dame based in Rome she has led many student field trips to Pompeii. Indeed, it has been a focus of her interest since first visiting it as a girl in 1962.
If you have read anything else by Rowland, you know that she is very learned. And that she shares that vast erudition with her reader. So it is with FROM POMPEII. There is a cornucopia of information and esoterica about Pompeii and its environs, including Naples. She, of course, begins with the explosion of Mount Vesuvius on August 24 of A.D. 79, and she takes us through the history of the place up to today, when damage to the excavated Roman town comes from a changing climate, slashed budgets, bureaucracy, corruption, and "excesses of attention and excesses of neglect". (Still, Mount Vesuvius, thought by many to be primed for another massive explosion with pyroclastic flows, remains an apocalyptic threat.)
Among other things, Rowland recounts the experiences of noted visitors to Pompeii through history, including Father Athanasius Kircher ("the last man who knew everything"), a youthful Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Pierre-August Renoir, and Crown Prince Hirohito. It's not all high-brow: there is a chapter on Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman making the movie "Viaggio in Italia (Journey to Italy)" in 1953, at the same time as in Naples Vittorio di Sica was filming "The Gold of Naples" starring the nineteen-year-old Sophia Loren. Rowland also discusses how Pompeii, through history, has been the inspiration for various paintings, novels, and poems (including one by Emily Dickinson).
And Ingrid Rowland being Ingrid Rowland, there is plenty of arcana, much of it fascinating although potentially overwhelming in its abundance. For example, castrati: Although castration, as deliberate mutilation of the body, was under official church doctrine a sin punishable by excommunication, the church was the chief employer of castrati as singers and Naples was the epicenter of their production (in the eighteenth century, Neapolitan barbers hung out signs saying "Boys castrated here"). Another example: the Fontanelle in the Valley of the Dead, a quarry carved into the bedrock of Naples that had for centuries been used as a mass grave (such as for victims of the plague), and eventually the source for a widespread cult among lower class Neapolitans who built shrines and otherwise lavished affection and attention on individual skulls plucked from the cemetery's stacks of skulls. A third example (to show just how far-ranging Rowland's scholarship can go): John Surratt, one of John Wilkes Booth's co-conspirators in the plot against Abraham Lincoln, escaped the United States to fight for Pope Pius IX in his campaign to keep Rome from being incorporated into a united Italian nation-state.
For the most part Rowland's prose flows well enough, although there are occasional sentences sufficiently thorny and convoluted as to require a second reading. Often, a little too often for my liking, Rowland incorporates into her narrative passages from other writers. But my principal reservation is that, for me, the book's rampant erudition was simply too much for relaxed, wholly pleasurable reading -- which, of course, may be more a fault of mine than the book's.
FROM POMPEII includes about forty duotone illustrations -- historical photos, works of art, and photographs of Pompeii and its wall paintings taken by Rowland. The very last of those photographs is of a juice vendor's stand at Pompeii, likely the same stand at which I bought lemonade that revived my wilting family on our one and only visit there on a sweltering August day in 2003. The book also contains a few minor typographical errors, more than I would expect from a publisher with the reputation of the Belknap Press.
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We think of Pompeii as frozen in the year 79 A.D., and maybe it was indeed inert until people started digging around the site in the eighteenth century. From then on, the place has inevitably changed, as people dug in it and restored it to their way of thinking, fantasized about it, took parts of it away, and made it fit for the thousands of visitors who came to wander its streets. It is this story that is told in _From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town_ (Belknap/Harvard) by Ingrid D. Rowland. The author is a professor at the University of Notre Dame in Rome, and her chapters are essays on aspects of the city. Some of them are personal, like her memories of being taken to the area when she was a child (there is a picture here of her as an eight-year-old in Herculaneum, with a Brownie camera dangling from her neck) or her experiences in taking commercial tours from Rome to the region where she has conducted more serious academic tours. While the chapters are chronological, Rowland is a digressive and often witty writer, who obviously enjoys relating facts in a more informal way (nonetheless, there are plenty of footnotes). “This book presents a selection of visitors whose lives were forever altered by their experience of Pompeii, as well as a few who reacted less drastically.” While there are plenty of references to the city, its history, and its archaeology, the story of its afterlife proves to be colorful, frustrating, and funny.
Pompeii’s discovery came after Herculaneum was being dug up, and by 1765 tour guides had added Pompeii to their repertoires for people coming to see the region around Naples. Much of Rowland’s book has to do with visits to Pompeii by famous people. The fifteen-year-old Mozart went in 1770, and it is often said that Mozart’s visit to the site, especially the Temple of Isis, helped inspire parts of _The Magic Flute_. But Rowland admits, “How exactly are we to recognize the reflection of an archaeological site in a musical composition?” Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel _The Last Days of Pompeii_ has characters say things like, “Ho, Diomed, well met! Do you sup with Glaucus to-night?” The 1867 novel, which seems to insert Victorian speech and views into the doomed city, was a bestseller, and it used to be (seriously) recommended for those who were making their first visit to view the ruins. Dickens visited in 1845, and wrote a description in _Pictures of Italy_ which movingly could describe the ruins as we see them even now. He was moved by imagining all those Pompeians wiped out by Vesuvius, but he was disturbed by the Neapolitan cult of the dead. Mark Twain visited in 1875, and in _Innocents Abroad_ wrote acerbically about the Neapolitan belief in the miraculous liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro which helped draw money from onlookers (he’d chuckle to know that the blood is still performing this function). Like Dickens, he was more moved by the ruins of Pompeii itself, and he was inspired by the figure of the “Steadfast Soldier,” a guard whose skeleton was found in his guard-box, refusing to abandon his post just because a volcano was raging. Many other moralists at the time admired the Steadfast Soldier; there is, however, no evidence that the skeleton was any more than some unfortunate Pompeian, fleeing with all the others, who ducked under an arch, not into a guard-box, for shelter. Pierre-Auguste Renoir visited Italy in 1881 after struggling in Paris for twenty years, and was inspired by the classical paintings he saw and by the light. He admired the frescoes from Pompeii that he saw in the National Museum in Naples and on site. His paintings became brighter and more sculptural because of them. In 1994, Hillary Clinton refused to be satisfied with seeing just Herculaneum, and got into Pompeii, although her tour was abbreviated. Secret Service agents went before her room by room to make sure everything was safe, and their protectiveness extended to preventing her from entering a room in the beautiful House of the Vettii where there is a famous statue of the god Priapus with his enormous phallus. This was not going to be a photo op.
In Rowland’s vivid telling, Pompeii proves to be a very lively place indeed. And still the ancient streets are alive with guides and tourists. Buying and selling and arguing go on nearby, just as they did two thousand years ago. The other constant is Mount Vesuvius, which is now overdue for an eruption, and it is quite possible that the whole place will be buried again, along with much of the the surrounding area along the Bay of Naples. The Neapolitans are skeptical about government, and there is every reason to believe that any evacuation plan, even with scientific warnings the ancient Pompeians never had, is going to leave thousands behind when the volcano blows. “There is simply no way to escape the discrepancy of scale between Vesuvius and human beings,” writes Rowland. “It is one of the reasons that Pompeii pulls so on our imagination.”