Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pop History Moment: The Destruction of Pompeii


On this day in 79 CE Italy's Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the Roman resort towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae under a heap of ash and pumice which was in places as much as 25 metres deep; the residents had been given fair warning, as the mountain began stirring the day before during the Vulcanalia, the annual feast to the Roman god of fire. Among the celebrity dead of the day's disaster was Pliny the Elder who, in the spirit of investigation which was his trademark, was overwhelmed by ash and poisonous gas when he got too close; his body was eventually recovered, two days after the eruption. It was his nephew and heir Pliny the Younger who gave the most poignant and compelling account of the devastation.

While some ruins were discovered in the area by Domenico Fontana in 1599, the cities lay buried and forgotten for 17 centuries, until the site was again rediscovered (this time also by accident) when builders constructing a summer palace for Charles of Bourbon, the King of Naples, found the remains of Herculaneum in 1738. It was upon this happenstance that excavation of the site began in earnest, an effort which is still underway.

Today Pompeii is Italy's most popular tourist attraction, drawing more than 2.5 million visitors annually; it's made a similar impression upon pop culture as well, exciting the imaginations of painters* and writers, including Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose 1834 historical novel The Last Days of Pompeii was for years the gold standard.

*Including J.M.W. Turner, whose painting Eruption of Vesuvius adorns this post; Turner, however, wasn't painting the historical eruption but a different one, although his hand may have been guided by history here. Still, it's a pretty picture, and since very few paintings from 79 CE remain, it'll have to do.

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