From the eve of de­struc­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Visual Arts -

All ru­ined cities re­mind us of the pass­ing of time and the fragility of hu­man life, but Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum, since their re­dis­cov­ery 2½ cen­turies ago, have also fas­ci­nated gen­er­a­tions of vis­i­tors be­cause of the man­ner of their de­struc­tion.

Many cities have fallen into dis­re­pair and even­tu­ally ruin after mil­i­tary de­feat or per­sis­tent at­tacks from pi­rates made them un­in­hab­it­able; oth­ers with­ered after changes in trade routes or tech­nol­ogy un­der­mined their rel­e­vance; oth­ers again were grad­u­ally aban­doned as estuaries silted up and the land around them be­came malar­ial. But only Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum were an­ni­hi­lated by the kind of over­whelm­ing nat­u­ral catas­tro­phe that com­mer­cial films at­tempt to evoke with ever more so­phis­ti­cated and yet hollow spe­cial ef­fects.

Adding to the pathos of the event are its time and place, and even the fact — as the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion em­pha­sises — that we know a great deal about one of the most im­por­tant fig­ures in­volved. Cities that fall into a slow de­cline usu­ally do so out of the spot­light of his­tory, in re­mote bor­der­lands or in trou­bled pe­ri­ods that are poorly doc­u­mented: when Porto Tor­res in Sar­dinia, said to have been founded by Julius Cae­sar and ev­i­dently an im­por­tant cen­tre on the trade route be­tween Rome and Mar­seilles, grad­u­ally fell vic­tim to the raids of Arab pi­rates, there was no one to chron­i­cle the slow and re­luc­tant aban­don­ment of the site.

Pom­peii and Her­cu­la­neum, on the other hand, were pros­per­ous cen­tres in a flour­ish­ing re­gion of Cam­pa­nia in the first cen­tury AD. Naples was an im­por­tant Greek city that had al­lied it­self with the Ro­man repub­lic in the Pu­nic Wars against Carthage in the third cen­tury BC, and had sub­se­quently be­come part of the Ro­man state, although it pre­served its Hel­lenis­tic cul­ture and the use of the Greek lan­guage. Not far to the west of Naples was Cu­mae, the first Greek colony on the Ital­ian main­land, and to the south­west was Misenum, the great port built by Agrippa as the main base of the Mediter­ranean fleet.

Vir­gil, who was born in Man­tua, lived for most of his life as a writer in Naples, no doubt be­cause it was much more beau­ti­ful, peace­ful and healthy than Rome, and above all be­cause it was a place to be im­mersed in the Greek cul­ture and lan­guage that so in­flu­enced his work: his Eclogues were in­spired by the Si­cil­ian Hel­lenis­tic poet The­ocri­tus, the Ge­or­gics by He­siod and the Aeneid by Homer.

Vir­gil also imag­ined a num­ber of im­por­tant events in the Aeneid as tak­ing place in this land­scape: Daedalus, es­cap­ing with his ar­ti­fi­cial wings from Crete and los­ing his son Icarus on the way, came to land at Cu­mae. Cen­turies later, Ae­neas must visit the Sibyl, the prophet­ess of Apollo, in her cave there, be­fore de­scend­ing to the un­der­world at Lake Aver­nus nearby. Cu­mae is still an evoca­tive arche­o­log­i­cal site, and you can visit the An­tro della Si­billa, dis­cov­ered in 1932, an ar­ti­fi­cial pas­sage cut into the stone and leading to an un­der­ground cham­ber. When I was deep in the cave a few years ago, on what seemed like a clear day, there was a sud­den and mem­o­rable thun­der­storm.

Apart from its cul­tural and lit­er­ary as­so­ci­a­tions, the whole coast­line of the Gulf of Naples, from Misenum to Sur­ren­tum, was also a place of sea­side re­sorts and the vil­las of wealthy Ro­mans. The lit­tle is­land of the Cas­tel dell’Ovo in the bay of the city of Naples was once the villa of the im­mensely rich Lu­cul­lus; half a mil­len­nium later it is said to be the place where the last Ro­man em­peror, Ro­mu­lus Au­gus­tu­lus, ab­di­cated. In the Mid­dle Ages it was pop­u­larly be­lieved that Vir­gil had hid­den a mag­i­cal egg in the walls of the is­land’s for­ti­fi­ca­tions, hence its name.

Ba­iae, west of Naples, was one of the most no­to­ri­ous plea­sure re­sorts of the time. My 11year old daugh­ter, whom I took to visit this ex­hi­bi­tion, had read of the say­ing that a young girl goes to Ba­iae as Penelope but re­turns as Helen. In the sec­ond and third cen­turies, Philo­stra­tus, writ­ing in Greek, com­posed a large col­lec­tion of lit­er­ary de­scrip­tions of paint­ings, in a lit­er­ary genre known as ekphra­sis. Un­like some other ex­am­ples of the genre, th­ese paint­ings may have been imag­i­nary, but they are de­scribed as be­ing in the galleries of a mag­nif­i­cent villa over­look­ing the sea on this very coast.

One of the great houses ex­ca­vated in Her­cu­la­neum, the Villa dei Papiri, gives some idea of the kind of house Philo­stra­tus imag­ines: it is named for its enor­mous li­brary, many of whose cal­ci­nated scrolls may soon be read­able us­ing the same kind of highly so­phis­ti­cated CT scan­ning tech­nol­ogy that now al­lows us to look in­side mummy wrap­ping with­out dis­turb­ing the mum­mies, and which may yield lost mas­ter­pieces of an­cient po­etry or phi­los­o­phy. The many bronze stat­ues found in this villa con­firm the wealth and the cul­tural in­ter­ests of its owner.

But it was not all wealth, cul­ture and plea­sures. The econ­omy of the re­gion was based on agri­cul­ture — ce­real crops, vine­yards, fig or­chards — and be­side Greek Naples there were towns like Pom­peii, which was pop­u­lated by Sam­nites and Latins; Sulla had also set­tled a large num­ber of his vet­er­ans in the re­gion in 80 BC, inevitably up­set­ting many of the orig­i­nal in­hab­i­tants. Pom­peii was a busy trad­ing city, fa­mous for its fish sauce, garum, prob­a­bly some­what like the fish sauce of Viet­nam and Thai­land today. As vis­i­tors to the ru­ins know, it had plenty of bars and broth­els, but the wealth­ier and more cul­ti­vated ci­ti­zens had beau­ti­ful fres­coes on their walls and sculp­tures in their gar­dens.

Above all this, in the mid­dle of a bay which has al­ways been con­sid­ered one of the great beauty spots of the world, stood a tall, con­i­cal moun­tain that no one knew was a vol­cano, for there had not been an erup­tion in recorded his- tory. There had in­deed been some warn­ing signs: in AD 62 a se­vere earth­quake caused sig­nif­i­cant dam­age in the re­gion: re­pairs after this quake are still de­tectable in the ru­ins of the later cat­a­clysm. A small re­lief in the ex­hi­bi­tion and re­call­ing that event shows a tem­ple shak­ing on its foun­da­tions and, in an un­in­ten­tion­ally comic de­tail, two eques­trian stat­ues whose rid­ers seem to be strug­gling to re­tain their seat. The erup­tion be­gan, almost out of the blue and in the heat of late sum­mer, on Au­gust 24, AD 79, at about 1pm, when the moun­tain sud­denly erupted, send­ing a mas­sive col­umn of ash and pumice high into the air like the ex­plo­sion of a nu­clear bomb. Ash be­gan to fall over the cities, but the most de­struc­tive phase came about 12 hours later when the col­umn of ash be­gan to col­lapse un­der its own weight, fall­ing back to earth and cre­at­ing mas­sive su­per­heated py­ro­clas­tic flows that rushed out­wards, smash­ing build­ings, in­cin­er­at­ing plants and in­stantly killing all the in­hab­i­tants who re­mained be­hind. It hap­pened that the most fa­mous sci­en­tist of his time, Pliny the El­der, was com­man­der of the fleet at Misenum at the time, and was ac­com­pa­nied by his nephew Pliny the Younger, best known today for his pub­lished cor­re­spon­dence, which in­cludes an eye­wit­ness ac­count of the erup­tion. Pliny the El­der was the au­thor of the multi-vol­ume Nat­u­ral His­tory, which was for more than 1500 years after his death a fun­da­men­tal ref­er­ence work for ev­ery­thing from ge­ol­ogy to art his­tory. Driven by sci­en­tific cu­rios­ity as well as the hu­man­i­tar­ian im­pulse to res­cue vic­tims of the

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