Last summer, at the British Museum, it was the 2,000-year-old loaf of bread that got to me. It looked almost edible, with its legible baker’s stamp, as if one could reach through the glass and find oneself in ancient Pompeii.
Around the next corner, fellow visitors to the Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition were transfixed by the immediacy of those plaster casts of children caught at the moment of their agonising death. Such is the shocking intimacy offered by Pompeii and Herculaneum: the collision of past and present, mortality and eroticism, beauty, banality and menace. Centuries of visitors have experienced this frisson and many appear in the pages of Ingrid Rowland’s lively book: 17th-century polymath Athanasius Kircher with his dangerous ideas about God’s rationality, Pierre-Auguste Renoir marvelling at ancient frescoes’ luminescence, Mark Twain taking sideswipes at local corruption, or Hillary Clinton, prevented by anxious aides from entering the room where a huge painted Priapus weighs his own oversized penis. Rowland’s celebrity anecdotes are fun, but the book works best when Pompeii’s visitors – novelists, archaeologists, geologists, artists, composers – speak for themselves, through letters and journals dug out of the archives; their responses are fascinatingly diverse.
For Pompeii is not really frozen in time. The achievement of Rowland’s book is precisely to show it at the heart of a turbulent, ever-changing region, where the landscape and people are forever caught up in transformation and drama – whether geological, political, technological or cultural. She beautifully evokes the connections between the local, the international, the spiritual and the seismic: wars erupt, the volcano rains down fire and is silent, foreign rulers arrive and leave, cholera epidemics devastate, slums are cleared, ancient cities are dug out of the ground and then exposed to erosion and neglect, corruption and trampling feet.
Rowland’s appreciation of the macabre and uncanny is appealing. Thrice yearly, a vial of San Gennaro’s blood liquefies as a reassuring sign of the saint’s continued protection of Naples, yet inside Vesuvius the volcanic pressure continues to build. Beneath the surface of Naples, skulls are worshipped in the catacombs; in the 18th century the anatomically accurate “models” of the human circulatory system displayed by aristocratic Freemason Raimondo di Sangro were widely suspected to be two servants injected with some chemical substance to preserve their bodies; in the Grotta del Cane, unfortunate dogs used to be asphyxiated in the noxious fumes to entertain the tourists; the subterranean, sulphurous tunnels of Herculaneum so terrified the local women that excavators had to find a “motherless bachelor” to make the first descent in 1740.
For Rowland, Pompeii is the fount from which innumerable rivulets of history flow, and her fluent and engaging writing follows them where it will, often meandering rather far from the source. It is also the case that the historical detail does not always withstand scrutiny and occasionally the commentary is glib. But no one could be absolute master of this remarkable range of material and it is the overall effect that counts; this is a vivid and stimulating account of the history of a corner of the earth where there seems too much colourful humanity ever to be adequately captured in a single book. Rowland’s brimming pages show there are plenty more treasures to be excavated from the fertile volcanic soil of its history.
From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town
By Ingrid D. Rowland
Harvard University Press, 352pp, £21.95
Published March 2014