POMPEII’S ASHES

By Eric M. Moormann

De Gruyter (2015) h/b 488pp £67.99 (ISBN 9781614518730)

If you are an intelligent general reader or specialist interested in ‘the reception of the cities buried by Vesuvius in literature, music and drama’ (the volume’s subtitle), here is the book for you. This substantial survey of Western European works, equipped with extensive notes and bibliography, contains very few black and white illustrations and intentionally omits all pictorial representation except film. Each of the ten chapters, despite numerous cross-references, aims to be read independently, and the detailed index promotes easy browsing of specific authors or works.

The first chapter contains a lengthy overview of the rediscovery of the buried towns aimed to relate the findings to later literary accounts. It covers the evolving process of archaeological excavation from hasty treasure seeking, through the implementation of more scientific methods in uncovering whole houses and regions of the towns with their graffiti, artefacts and body voids, to modern stratigraphic procedures, as well as treating the financial implications of restoration and conservation and the effects of recent exhibitions, media coverage and mass tourism.

The following chapters document such subjects as the personal experiences of early and modern tourists through journals and travel writing; works stimulated by encounters with the casts or skeletons of victims of the eruption and the origins of fictional motifs like the brave sentinel at the Herculaneum Gate; educational and popular historical novels for both adults and children; and nineteenth century Christian novels, including the highly influential Last Days of Pompeii by Edward Bulwer-Lytton (1834). Pompeii features as a setting for modern encounters with the past in genres like crime fiction and modern thrillers and as a vehicle for exploring time travel with its possibilities of contacting the dead and experiencing their emotions. There are treatments of the short stories, novels, diaries, epic poems and political pamphlets inspired by the charred scrolls discovered in the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum; of the operas, stage plays, music and songs (‘concoctions of reality and fantasy’) prompted by the final hours and destruction of Pompeii, including Victorian panoramas and pyrodrams (costly mass spectacles with actors, music and fireworks), which were the forerunners of today’s films such as Paul Anderson’s Pompeii (2014), television shows (a Dr Who episode from 2008) and modern video games. The last topic is poetry centred on Vesuvius and Herculaneum.

The final chapter presents the conclusions of this comprehensive research: that Pompeii, where the ability to walk through ancient houses and streets is unmatched anywhere else in the world, and the immediacy of contact with the skeletons and casts of its former inhabitants, act as a unique catalyst to writers in recreating the daily lives of ordinary people and relating to the human drama of the eruption. The result is ‘an extremely rich corpus of fictional and poetic works,’ which in turn stimulates scientists, archaeologists and ancient historians to reassess the physical evidence. Unsurprisingly, M. concludes (p. 424) that ‘we all create a version of Pompeii and Herculaneum that suits us… not tombstones of dead towns, but monuments that illustrate how very much alive they still are.’

Claire Gruzelier—King Edward VI High School for Girls, Birmingham

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