Pompeii and Herculaneum are Roman cities from late antiquity that don’t need any introduction. There has been so much said about them that I can’t possibly add anything new to the discussion. When the majestic Mount Vesuvius decided to erupt on 24th August 79 CE, it sent shock waves throughout the region of the devastation it wreaked on the people of the small cities underneath its shadow. It seemed that the Romans thought Vesuvius was just a mountain but even if they had known it was a volcano, did they assume it was extinct? So when it violently blew its top, unprecedented chaos and the scrabble to evacuate ensued. Its violent eruption spewed a thick layer of pumice and ash covering Pompeii in five metres of volcanic matter. Herculaneum, which lay to the west of the volcano, suffered an equally disturbing fate. Whilst it escaped the fallout of ash, because of the wind direction blowing southeast to Pompeii, it was instead mainly overcome by streaming flows of mud-lava, to the depths of up to fifteen to twenty metres deep.
We have a wonderful record of what happened mainly from the account of two letters addressed to Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus from Pliny the Younger. His account recalls the violent destruction of the volcano with its “broad sheets of fire and leaping flames.” In the letters is also a description how “you could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of the infants and the shouting of the men.”
A majority of Pompeii’s 20,000 residents did escape the eruption, but unfortunately some 2,000 did not, dying from effects of raining lava and rock and poisonous ash and fumes. Selfishly for our posterity, a record and a reminder of what took place is ghoulishly visible in the ‘moulds’ made of these victims. This was achieved through a technique used in the archeological digs of Pompeii and Herculaneum, where plaster of Paris was poured in any void found by excavators. Once the surrounding ash was removed it exposed the shape of human or animal figures. These voids would come to represent the remains of victims in the position that they died.
In the aftermath almost everything in these two cities was preserved beneath the ash and tufa, intact with very little damage of remarkable structures, objects and victims. Interestingly, a call to the Emperor Tacitus yielded help for the displaced of the city but no real attempt was ever made to rebuild the cities. Some people and looters returned in time to dig in the cooling ash; however it wouldn’t be until the middle of the eighteenth century before Pompeii and to a lesser extent Herculaneum were first truly excavated.
In art, since the rediscovery of Pompeii in the mid-18th century, a general fascination surrounding Vesuvius took root in both France and England. From Hubert Robert to Pierre-Jacques Volaire to Joseph Wright of Derby, these artists sketched and painted the infamous peak with dizzy excitement, especially because the volcano had began a sustained period of renewed activity. English landscape and portrait painter Joseph Wright of Derby was in particular seemingly obsessed with painting Vesuivius (over thirty times throughout his career) in the 1770’s. The beginning of the next century, as the excavation of Pompeii intensified, other artists like John Martin and Sebastian Pether were drawn to painting Vesuvius’ terror and beauty. But arguably Russian painter Karl Bryullov above all others, captures our imagination, especially of the horror and madness of the evacuation of Roman citizens in Pompeii in 79 AD in his masterpiece The Last Day of Pompeii (1833).
Of interest, are the small staged groups of people huddled together in the painting. In the foreground in particular an image of a woman who has died with her infant still clinging to her is quite emotive. While on the far right in the foreground a mother pleads with her son to flee is also poignant. But above all else, the immense power of Vesuvius illustrated by the fiery sky and the statues toppling from their pedestals is the paintings most terrifying and enduring image.
It is said that the inspiration for Bryullov’s massive Pompeii canvas (456cm by 651cm oil on canvas) was directly attributed not only with the ongoing excavations of Pompeii, but also Alessandro Sanquirico’s set design for the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Giovanni Pacini’s successful opera L’ultimo giorno di Pompeii in 1825. Interestingly, upon completing his epic history painting in Rome (which he called home for thirteen years), Bryullov found fame across Europe and his native Russia. Moreover, important exhibitions at the Louvre and the Hermitage won it near universal acclaim. (Importantly, the French Academy awarded Bryullov’s painting a gold medal.) Later at the end of its successful European run, Count Anatolii Demidov, who commissioned the painting, presented it as a gifted to Russian Tsar Nicholas I.
Today, The Last Day of Pompeii still has a permanent home in Saint Petersburg.
This painting appears in the public domain.