Pompeii has been many things over the centuries. It's been "a vineyard, a treasure trove, a den of bandits and today it remains an archaeological gem 'exposed and vulnerable,'" according to the new book From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town.
Author Ingrid D. Rowland's aim was to write a book about Pompeii as viewed in the modern imagination, and to do this she pored through detailed accounts of the tragic city written by tourists such as Mark Twain and the teenage Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his father Leopold, as well as the eyewitness accounts of Pliny the Younger, who described the eruption of Mount Vesuvius over Pompeii in A.D. 79: "Some of the cloud was white, in other parts there were dark patches of dirt and ash ... Ash was falling ... now, darker and denser ... Now it was bits of pumice, and rocks that were blackened and burned and shattered by the fire. Now the sea is shoal; debris from the mountain blocks the shore."
It was this eruption, of course, that has frozen Pompeii in time, leaving the twisted shapes of its long-ago inhabitants imprinted in volcanic ash for centuries. Rowland, trained as a classical archaeologist and now a historian and professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture in Rome, spoke to National Geographic about her book and how Pompeii is as threatened as ever. (See "Rescue of Ancient Ruin of Pompeii Follows New Plan.")
You first visited Pompeii in 1962 as an eight-year-old child. What are some of the biggest differences in the region and its ruins since you first set eyes on it?
The prosperity is the most striking thing. In 1962 Italy was still really coming out of the devastation of World War II. You could still see bombed-out buildings, and people were unbelievably poor. That kind of poverty is much harder to find in Italy now. What people wore was much simpler; life was a lot simpler.
The earthquake of 1980 really changed everything drastically. It shook the whole site up, and a lot of things started crumbling at that point. The really marked change was the earthquake, [and] it's still a problem. The House of the Vettii, which is one of the standard places to visit, buckled after the earthquake. The damaged wall was propped up and has really never been the same since. What buckled was the wall of one of the alae, the wings right off the atrium. It was a room that as a young professor I used to point out to my students—and then it just became inaccessible.
When you say you were exploring "Pompeii in the modern imagination," what time period does that mean?
We were considering the 18th century and the whole period of the excavations as modern, in the sense that a classicist uses the word "modern." It's just anything that doesn't have a B.C. on it.
Have our impressions of Pompeii changed much over the centuries, based on the texts you studied?
Basically it's stayed the same: It's that whole tension between the living city that fascinates people because it's so well preserved, and then the fact that they all died in this terrible cataclysm. It's this interplay between civilization and mortality, and I think that's pretty much universal. It's one of the appeals of the site.
Somehow human reactions have been pretty constant. Mozart was a teenager and he was thinking about a girl in Salzburg as much as he was thinking about what he saw. So his letters aren't very revealing, but that's just because he was a teenager.
Pompeii lies just east of the Bay of Naples, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius. How does its geography affect efforts to preserve the site today?
It's a fairly mild climate. You don't have extremes of temperature, and you don't have—until recently—torrential rains. It's not something like Chicago or Boston where everything freezes. Freezing is rare, so the ruins aren't subjected to extremes of temperature. The problem is that it's a volcanic area, so it's completely unstable. That means earthquakes are inevitable.
There's also a phenomenon called bradyseism, which is a word based on the Greek for "slow shaking." What happens is that Vesuvius fills up with stuff, then the ground rises and then the ground falls again. This little town called Pozzuoli, Sophia Loren's hometown to the north of Naples, has been having a lot of subsidence. It will rise six inches in six months and then go down again. It rises and then falls and then rises again—so you never know what's sea level.
A hill, a little baby volcano called New Mountain, popped up in 1538 in the course of about a week. It was September 1538 when it just came into existence and that was that, north of Naples too. So a lot of weird things are happening all the time in the area.
What is the effect of these torrential rains on the ruins?
It's been devastating. The latest crumblings are all because it rains so much more now than it used to. The ground gets soaked and then it destabilizes. That's really what's been happening when you get all these reports of crumbling: It's because it rains and rains and rains, and it wasn't like that before.
What do you think is causing all the rain?
It's global warming. My dad was an atmospheric chemist; he monitored all these things since the 70s. It really is straightforward climate change. I've got something in the book about that because the climatologist for the newspaper La Stampa has written a book about Italian climate change.
You write that Vesuvius has had three major eruptions, and now people are saying another one is coming?
It's inevitable. There hasn't been any activity in recent decades, so everyone is afraid the volcano has formed a plug again. It hasn't done a thing since 1944, and that means probably the main mountain is plugged up and that the obstruction will have to blow free. Etna and Stromboli are still constantly active; they are venting all the time—one is in Sicily and one is in the middle of the sea between Naples and Sicily. Stromboli erupts basically every day.
You wrote that in Italy Vesuvius is not considered a vulcano buono—a good volcano.
Everybody in Sicily says Etna is buono because it does erupt [but] it erupts lava gently. Most of the time they can channel the lava successfully to avoid houses. Vesuvius, if it's got a plug, then the plug will blow sky high.
That's definitely not buono.
[Laughs] I always wonder when I take students, what if it blows now? They say we'll have a week's warning, but everything you read about previous eruptions shows you have a day and half.
In your book you talk about entropy, neglect, and damage to the frescoes. Is this all to blame on the rain?
Some of the problem is that it was a ruined city when it was buried. Things had already begun to fall apart. And then when you expose them, they fall apart further.
Any archaeological site falls apart just by its nature because they're all preserved as defective in some way. If they weren't defective, people would still be living there. I've actually become convinced that the best thing for any place or any city is to be continuously lived in. [Editor's note: Rowland lives in a 14th-century tower, and part of her philosophy, she says, is that "living in buildings is the best thing for them. I'm living proof of that belief."]
When you were writing this book, which encompasses archaeology, science, and art, what really caught your imagination?
I was completely surprised by the whole story of Bartolo Longo, the man who founded New Pompeii, the modern town right down the road from the archaeological site. The site had a little village for workers and the site superintendent, but this was state run on state property.
I knew nothing about him but that there were statues of him in the city of Pompeii. He was a person who combined completely contradictory trends in Italian thinking—he was both a modern political reformer and a devout Catholic, two poles that are supposed to be opposed to each other, and he was both of those things at once.
He got off a train to collect rent from peasants living around the site and realized that they were dirt poor and nobody cared about them, and he decided he should care about them. He was somebody who extended compassion to the living people of Pompeii as well as the dead ones. I found him really interesting because it brings up the question of whether Pompeii belongs to the people who were buried there or the people who live there now.
As for the buried, are they still visible if you visit now?
Yes. Of course, when I was younger I thought they were really great, and now they make me so sad. The longer you live, the closer your time comes and then ... It's just more affecting than it used to be in my 20s when I thought, "Oh, great, bodies." Of course, my students just love the bodies, [but] now they just make me sad.
These are just casts of the bodies?
Right, but it's real skeletons inside. So the flesh is all plaster, but their real skeletons survived. Their bones didn't deteriorate.
Is there one set of bodies that's particularly affecting for you?
I hadn't until recently seen the Garden of the Fugitives, where there's a group of 13 people lying down in a garden shed. The older ones are trying to protect the younger ones, and you realize how desperate they really were. And that poor dog is just so sad; he's twisting around in agony because he's fried by a pyroclastic flow so he looks more agonized than he really was. His brain had vaporized before he could register the pain.
That's true of all the body casts that we have: They probably didn't feel their final agony because their brains were gone. (See "Pompeiians Flash-Heated to Death—'No Time to Suffocate.'")
A.D. 79 was the big eruption. Which were the others?
There's 1631, which is a big one. That's the next-well-documented one. There were several between 79 and 1631, but the records aren't very good. Then it erupts fairly steadily up until 1944. There are repeat eruptions, but it's not as drastic, and then in 1944 it stopped.
That's made everybody nervous because there had been a long hiatus before 1631 too. We don't know which direction the wind will blow, so it's not necessarily going to obliterate Pompeii again. It could go toward Nola, which is in the other direction. Nola was buried in the Bronze Age eruption around 1300 B.C.
You detail how Pliny the Younger sent his account of the A.D. 79 eruption in answer to a request from the historian Tacitus. That account seems key to our understanding of Vesuvius today.
Yes, I think so because there were old stories that there had been strange things going on there, but nobody had seen an eruption. Once it's in the literature, then everyone can read it and remember it. Everyone is afraid it will happen again—and if history proves right, it will happen again.