- From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town by Ingrid D. Rowland
No one can learn the story of Pompeii — and we all have, most of us as children — without feeling the draw of the place. I walked those streets in my childhood imagination long before I ever visited it myself. Pompeii, destroyed and then unearthed, occupies an important place in our collective history. Ingrid Rowland documents this by teasing out several of the threads in the weft of Pompeii’s influence. She sets out to describe the “important legacy of experience and inspiration to be found in the stories of visitors to Pompeii” (p. 6). Her book for this reason does not present an [End Page 572] argument, but is instead epideictic and suggestive. It is also beautifully written, learned, and entertaining.
This is a book about how the past works on and through individuals. It follows the history of the excavation of Pompeii while at the same time mapping the reactions, by turns profound, comical, and uplifting, of individuals to what has been found there. More broadly, it is a book about a subject from antiquity which has its start in the modern era, and so provides a good model for what students of the past do, or ought to do — that is, to provide some clear connections between our own time and the object of our scholarly work.
The book begins, appropriately, with Rowland’s own first experience of Pompeii in 1962, a visit she refers to several times over the arc of the book. Her chapters proceed more or less chronologically — with some necessary overlaps between chapters — from the eruption of Vesuvius in 1631 to the present day. She focuses on individuals, and discusses some people closely associated with the excavations themselves — names which may not be familiar to people outside the field — Giuseppe Fiorelli, August Mau, and Don Amedeo Maiuri, but many who only visited, and who are extremely well-known: W.A. Mozart, Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Bertolo Longo, and Ingrid Bergman.
Rowland draws from the activities, art, and writings of her subjects and the effect that their visits to the site of Pompeii had on them. Here Rowland’s sweep is necessarily broad: Twain was an American author, Renoir a French painter, Longo an Italian lawyer, and Bergman a Swedish actress. Their achievements and influence on their time, and ours, are very different. Twain’s recollections about Pompeii in his Innocents Abroad, which was one of the most popular travel memoirs of the nineteenth century, launched the author’s career. Rowland’s discussion about Renoir underscores how his painting changed after he experienced the quality of the light in Italy and studied the technique of Pompeian wall-painters. Bertolo Longo was almost single-handedly responsible for turning the countryside in the Valle di Pompeii from a depressed farming community to a thriving pilgrimage site.
Some chapters are less focused. The chapter on the journey of Mozart and his father to Campania, though charming and full of detail about the musical community and cognoscenti of Naples in the late eighteenth century, does not tie Mozart or his work to Pompeii as much as one would like, and the reader is left wondering why Mozart has been included in the chapter at all, lost as he is among a wide variety of individuals.
Rowland has consciously threaded her work together with themes and touchstones that recur across the chapters and that bind the chapters together in time: the annual miracle of the liquefaction of the blood of San Gennaro, the patron saint of Naples (and of this book), the Neapolitan [End Page 573] “attachment to skulls” (p. 83), the railway line from Naples to Pompeii, and, of course, Vesuvius itself. The book is full of humour, particularly in the chapter about Dickens and Twain, and in Rowland’s discussion of the rivalry between Sumner Lincoln Fairfield and Edward Bulwer (pp. 136–143), who both wrote romantic tales of the destruction of Pompeii. We are...