The more serious-minded visitors drew inspiration from the astonishing artwork coming to light. Published drawings of Pompeii’s richly colored interiors helped trigger the neo-Classical revival in European art and architecture. Well-appointed British homes in the early 19th century often had an Etruscan Room, whose décor was actually Pompeiian.
The story of the pagan city annihilated overnight by fire and brimstone was also an irresistible subject for 19th-century paintings and novels, notably Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 potboiler, The Last Days of Pompeii. “Novels like that and Quo Vadis drew on the material evidence from Pompeii to play up the idea of Roman decadence,” says classicist Judith Hallett. “It was presented as exactly what Christianity promised to rescue mankind from.”
In the months after Vesuvius’ eruption, “a lot of Pompeiians came back to dig through the ash and see what they could recover,” says anthropologist Glenn Storey of the University of Iowa, a consultant to the exhibition. “The Emperor Titus declared Pompeii an emergency zone and offered financial assistance for cleanup and recovery.” But the buried towns were beyond salvaging. “When this wasteland regains its green,” wrote the Roman poet Statius not long after the eruption, “will men believe that cities and peoples lie beneath?” Eventually, the towns were dropped from local maps. Within a few centuries, settlers had repopulated the empty terrain, unconcerned with what lay below. They planted grapevines and olive trees in the fertile black soil.