Resurrecting Pompeii

A new exhibition brings the doomed residents of Pompeii and Herculaneum vividly to life

"Last Days of Pompeii" depicts an artist's rendering of the catastrophic final hours of Pompeii as the citizens were buried alive in ash. (Karl Briullov)
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At the House of the Centenary, a lavish residence converted to a winery in the first century A.D., an impish bronze satyr, once part of a fountain, squeezes wine from a wineskin. Found on a wall in the same house, a large, loosely painted fresco depicts the wine god Bacchus festooned in grapes before what some scholars have identified as an innocent-looking Mount Vesuvius, its steep slopes covered with vineyards.

In the towns below it, most people would not have known that Vesuvius was a volcano or that a Bronze Age settlement in the area had been annihilated almost 2,000 years before. And that was not the first time. “Vesuvius is actually inside the exploded skeleton of an older volcano,” says Janney. “If you look at an aerial photograph, you can see the remaining ridge of a much larger volcano on the north side.” It likely blew, violently, long before human settlement.

Southern Italy is unstable ground, Janney says. “The African plate, on which most of the Mediterranean Sea rests, is actually diving beneath the European plate.” That kind of underground collision produces molten rock, or magma, rich in volatile gases such as sulfur dioxide. Under pressure underground, the gases stay dissolved. But when the magma rises to the surface, the gases are released. “When those kinds of volcanoes erupt,” he says, “they tend to erupt explosively.” To this day, in fact, Vesuvius remains one of the world’s most dangerous volcanoes; some 3.5 million Italians live in its shadow, and about 2 million tourists visit the ruins each year. Although monitoring devices are in place to warn of the volcano’s restiveness, “if there is a major eruption with little warning and the winds are blowing toward Naples,” says Janney, “you could have tremendous loss of life.”

Had Roman knowledge in the summer of 79 been less mythological and more geological, Pompeiians might have recognized the danger signs. A major earthquake 17 years earlier had destroyed large swaths of the city; much of it was still being rebuilt. Early in August, a small earthquake had rocked the town. Wells had mysteriously gone dry. Finally, at about one in the afternoon on August 24, the mountain exploded.

Fifteen miles away, Pliny the Elder witnessed the eruption from a coastal promontory. (He would die during a rescue mission the next morning, perhaps choked by ash after landing on the beach near Pompeii.) Watching with him was his 17-year-old nephew, known as Pliny the Younger, who has given history its only eyewitness account. Above one of the mountains across the bay, he noticed “a cloud of unusual size and appearance.” It reminded him of an umbrella pine tree “for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches.” The cloud was actually a scorching column of gas mixed with thousands of tons of rock and ash that had just blasted out of the earth at supersonic speed.

The column’s great heat continued to push it skyward until it reached a height of nearly 20 miles, says Janney. “As the column cooled, it began to spread out horizontally and drift with the wind, which is why [the younger] Pliny compared it to a pine tree. As it cooled further, solid particles started to rain down. That’s what began to fall on Pompeii.”

At first, the choking rain of ash and small pumice stones wasn’t lethal. An estimated 80 percent of Pompeii’s residents likely fled to the safety of neighboring villages, but more than 2,000 stayed behind, huddled inside buildings. By nightfall, the shower of debris had grown denser—and deadlier. Smoldering rocks bombarded the city. Roofs began to collapse. Panicked holdouts now emerged from their hiding places in cellars and upper floors and clogged Pompeii’s narrow, rubble-filled streets.

Perhaps the most poignant object in the exhibition is the plaster cast of a young child stretched out on his back with his toes pointed and his eyes closed. He might be sleeping, except his arms are lifted slightly. He was found with his parents and a younger sibling in the House of the Golden Bracelet, once a luxurious three-story home decorated with brightly colored frescoes. The family had sought refuge under a staircase, which then collapsed and killed them. The powdery ash that soon buried them was so finely textured that the cast reveals even the child’s eyelids. Coins and jewelry lay on the floor of the house. Among the finery was a thick gold bracelet weighing 1.3 pounds (the source of the building’s name) in the popular shape of a two-headed snake curled so that each mouth gripped one side of a portrait medallion. Pompeii’s serpents were unsullied by biblical associations; in ancient Italy, snakes meant good luck.


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