Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2013.09.53 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2013.09.53

Shelley Hales, Joanna Paul (ed.), Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today. Classical presences.   Oxford; New York:  Oxford University Press, 2011.  Pp. xix, 417.  ISBN 9780199569366.  $160.00.  

Reviewed by Virginia L. Campbell, University of Leeds (


As a site, Pompeii has been a source of inspiration in some form since it was first rediscovered more than two hundred and fifty years ago. This volume, the result of a 2007 conference at the University of Bristol, chronicles the fascination with Pompeii that has permeated the intellectual, cultural, and emotional milieu of Western society in that time.

The editors, Hales and Paul, present this collection of twenty-five entries, including the introduction and two interviews, in order to ‘demonstrate how Pompeii is at the centre of many narratives, and of importance to many academic disciplines; and these different aspects cannot be studied in isolation’ (p. 4). This is reflected in the biographies of the contributors, who consist of Classicists, historians, art historians, curators, and specialists in English and German literature. Whilst this truly multidisciplinary approach is the stated aim of the work, and understandably so considering the topic, it may not be as successful as the editors intended in presenting an academic reassessment of the impact of the site beyond material remains and the history of excavation, as will be discussed further below.

The papers are arranged roughly in a chronological fashion, offering the reader the opportunity to progress through two centuries of the reception of Pompeii, beginning with Goethe’s visit in 1787 (a mere forty years after the first explorations began) through the rise of tourism into the Victorian period, and then to modern approaches in the twentieth century and beyond. For the most part, the chapters could have also been arranged by theme, with the majority focusing on some aspect of literature, art, or archaeology.

Examinations on the influence Pompeii had on literature, whether fiction or poetry, comprise the largest group of essays contained in this work. This begins with Baum’s (pp. 34-47) discussion of William Beckford’s Dreams, Waking Thoughts and Incidents (1783), an epistolary account of the Grand Tour that mixes reverie and imaginative responses with descriptions of the site he encountered on a visit to Pompeii in 1780. This, and later a more realistic type of travelogue, becomes a popular genre in Western literature as travel to the Vesuvian region increases, resulting in accounts by James, Shelley, and Twain amongst others. A far more popular use of Pompeii in literature, certainly in the nineteenth century, is as the setting for some other narrative. This is true of Mme. de Stäel’s Corinne, or Italy (1807) discussed by Witucki (pp. 62-74), and Théophile Gautier’s Arria Marcella: Souvenir de Pompéi (1852), which is examined by Liveley (pp. 105-117). This technique is used in modern media as well: the single entry on film concerns Rossellini’s Journey to Italy (1954), in which Fox (pp. 286-300) discusses the use of Pompeii and the rendering of a plaster cast as a parallel emotional trajectory for the film’s central couple. Probably the best known story set in the ancient city is Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii (1834), the focus of three entries herein. Harrison (pp. 75-89) discuss the re-creation of the city as a setting, the use of ancient literature to enhance the sense of inhabiting a different time, and the profound influence William Gell’s Pompeiana (1824) had on Bulwer-Lytton’s descriptions of the city. Bridges (pp. 90-104) approaches the novel from a different perspective, that of ‘necromantic pathos – the notion that the revival of the past could be achieved not just through the scholarly study of uncovered objects but also through one’s affective relationship to the ruins and relics of antiquity’ (p. 92). This concept goes some way towards addressing the popularity of this novel (and others like it), which is an idea expanded upon by Malamud’s (pp. 199-214) examination of the favour Bulwer-Lytton’s work found in the antebellum United States. In addition to the myriad of possibilities for narrative located in Pompeii, it also allowed the development of particular themes. Moormann (pp. 171-184) provides a detailed look at Christians and Jews in Pompeii in late nineteenth fiction, as the use of the ancient city allowed authors to address religion in a way that, in conjunction with the concept of volcanic punishment, could construct elaborate stories telling of the quest for morally pure Christians in a pagan and libidinous world. This decadent view of Pompeii is repeated later in the twentieth century by Proust in À la recherché du temps perdu, which compares Pompeii to Paris at end of WWI, because, as Speigel (pp. 232-245) notes, both mark the ‘end of [a] degenerate and obsolescent society’ (p. 232). The final entry concerning literature, also the latest chronologically, is Paul’s (pp. 340-355) discussion of the poetry of Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi, whose use of natural catastrophe (Pompeii) as a mechanism for talking about manmade catastrophe (WWII as represented by the Holocaust, Anne Frank and Hiroshima) allows him to address horrors from his own past by indirect means. Pompeii and WWII both are, for Levi, represented by visual images (a plaster cast of a young girl, the image of a school girl burned into a wall by the atomic bomb blast), which is illustrative of the more visceral reception of Pompeii, that represented by artwork.

Fitzon (pp. 15-33) begins with the earliest approach to the visual impact of Pompeii with Goethe and the difficulty he, and later other visitors, had in reconciling their idea of Classical art with the remains of houses and wall paintings that were found on site. This dichotomy of what was expected and what was found is also the subject of two other chapters, both focusing on the so-called erotic images of Pompeii. Fisher and Langlands (pp. 301-315) reassess the popular idea of the censorship of sexual images and objects and the creation of the Secret Cabinet as an immediate reaction to the discovery of these items, when in fact their investigation shows a gap of approximately seventy years between the first discovery of erotic material and its seclusion from the viewing public. Levin-Richardson (pp. 316-330) takes a closer look at how the modern tourist interacts and reacts to this material, both within the context of the brothel in Pompeii and the Secret Cabinet exhibit in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. The remainder of the essays on visual material deal exclusively with the use of Pompeian themes as subject or background for artworks. Gardner Coates (pp. 48-61) not only discusses Angelica Kauffmann’s Pliny the Younger and his Mother at Misenum (1785) as an extension of the well-known letters to Tacitus on the eruption, but also the unique position of this woman as a historical painter (other subjects included Cornelia and Vergil) with a Classical education who was involved in the foundation of the Royal Academy in London. Betzer (pp. 118-134) explores the ability of a painter whose work, although grounded in archaeological evidence, uses fantasy and desire to create an example of female homoeroticism in the baths. Chassériau’s Tepidarium (1853) clearly derives the room of the Forum Baths from the plates of Gell and Mazois, and includes furniture found in the Praedia of Julia Felix, but otherwise creates an overtly erotic scene of naked women which, it is argued ‘underscore[s] the particular relationship being drawn between the material culture of Pompeii and the sexual freedom of antiquity’ (p. 121). Mid- to late-nineteenth century Italian artists had an altogether different motivation for using Pompeii as a setting, instead focusing on political and social commentary related to unification of the Italian state and the ‘Southern question’. Figurelli (pp. 136-152) discusses how the depictions of gladiators, slaves, and more humble scenes were created in order to address not only issues of the figurative enslavement of Italy by foreign rulers, but also later issues relating to the social and economic disparity between north and south as embodied by the southern peasant. Following on a political and social theme, Seydl (pp. 215-231) uses the city of Philadelphia in the 1870s as a case study to examine how the reaction to the display of artwork related to scenes and characters from Bulwer-Lytton’s novel along with casts of bronzes from Herculaneum can be used to explore ideas of social class, education and popular spectacle. Finally, on a more architectural note, Lapatin (pp. 270-285) provides an overview of the design and construction of the Getty Villa by J. Paul Getty as ‘indicative of how the Vesuvian sites have stirred the imaginations of even the most pragmatic of Americans’ (p. 270).

Finally, there are four essays that address more archaeological aspects of the impacts of Pompeii. Hales (pp. 153-170) discusses the rise of spiritualism in the nineteenth century, the popularity of picturesque melancholy in the Victorian imagination, and how well the ruins of Pompeii illustrated this concept. Also addressing a more emotional response to Pompeii, Orrells (pp. 185-198) provides an examination of Freudian archaeology, and Freud’s use of Jensen’s Gradiva to link his theories of hysteria and archaeological interpretation. The other two entries on archaeological matters are perhaps the most successful chapters in the volume. Hartnett’s detailed discussion of Vittorio Spinazzola’s excavations of the via dell’Abbondanza between 1910 and 1923 in conjunction with the first large-scale use of photography to document excavation provides an excellent assessment of the importance of recognising the choices made by scholars in documenting and publishing their work, and how great an impact these choices can have on later interpretation of a site or its material remains. This is particularly timely because of on-going work to document the same area of the ruins (see The Via dell’Abbondanza Project) and because of recent loss of some of the structures due to collapse. The last chapter, and the only to look beyond Pompeii, is Wallace-Hadrill’s (pp. 367-379) dissection of factors explaining the diminished popularity of Herculaneum as a tourist attraction and an area for research in comparison to Pompeii as determined in part by archaeologists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. This essay would seem to be in part motivated by the many successes of the Herculaneum Conservation Project, and can be viewed as an attempt to increase interest in the smaller city.

Additionally, there are two interviews contained in this volume, both of which, to some degree, address the challenges and pitfalls in writing about Pompeii for a wider audience. For Robert Harris, this is in the context of a novel, in which he attempted to juxtapose the historical reality with sympathetic characters and a gripping plotline. The other focuses on the Cambridge Latin Course, how and why Pompeii was picked as the setting for the text, and the continued use of the archaeology to enhance language learning.

As is often an issue with reception studies, evaluating the impact the ancient world has on people of other times and places must be grounded in a thorough and comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the ancient subject. In the majority of the essays, this is not the case, and whilst I appreciate the intent behind a multidisciplinary study of Pompeii, I am not convinced there is much of scholarly benefit as a result. Many of the essays are generally very narrative in approach, lacking a focused or scholarly argument that does more than discuss the potential Pompeii offered as a setting through which artists, writers, or the general public could view the ancient world. This volume seems a rather costly way to make such a simple point.

Finally, there are some minor quibbles with the presentation of the book as a whole, mainly that there are few references to the figures, or indeed the colour plates, and it is not always clear how the images are relevant to the discussion, in addition to the odd typo here and there.

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