From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Pompeii is a ruined Roman city near modern Naples in the Italian region of Campania, in the territory of the comune of Pompei. It, along with Herculaneum were destroyed, and completely buried, during a catastrophic eruption of the volcano Mount Vesuvius on 24 August 79 AD.
The volcano buried Pompeii under many meters of ash, and it was lost for 1,600 years before its accidental rediscovery in 1748. Since then, its excavation has provided an extraordinarily detailed insight into the life of a city at the height of the Roman Empire. Today, it is one of the most popular tourist attractions of Italy and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
After thick layers of ash covered the two towns, they were abandoned and eventually their names and locations were forgotten. Then Herculaneum was rediscovered in 1738 by workmen working on the foundation of a summer palace for the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon. Pompeii was rediscovered as the result of intentional excavations in 1748 by the Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre. These towns have since been excavated to reveal many intact buildings and wall paintings. The towns were actually found in 1599 by the architect Domenico Fontana, who was digging a new course for the river Sarno, but it took more than 150 years before a serious campaign was started to unearth them. Charles of Bourbon took great interest in the findings even after becoming king of Spain because the display of antiquities reinforced the political and cultural power of Naples.
Karl Weber directed the first real excavations; he was followed in 1764 by military engineer Franscisco la Vega. Franscisco la Vega was succeeded by his brother, Pietro, in 1804. During the French occupation Pietro worked with Christophe Saliceti.
Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the excavations in 1860. During early excavations of the site, occasional voids in the ash layer had been found that contained human remains. It was Fiorelli who realized these were spaces left by the decomposed bodies and so devised the technique of injecting plaster into them to perfectly recreate the forms of Vesuvius's victims. What resulted were highly accurate and eerie forms of the doomed Pompeiani who failed to escape, in their last moment of life, with the expression of terror often quite clearly visible. This technique is still in use today, with a clear resin now used instead of plaster because it is more durable, and does not destroy the bones, allowing further analysis.
Some have theorized that Fontana found some of the famous erotic frescoes and, due to the strict modesty prevalent during his time, reburied them in an attempt at archaeological censorship. This view is bolstered by reports of later excavators who felt that sites they were working on had already been visited and reburied. Even many recovered household items had a sexual theme. The ubiquity of such imagery and items indicates that the sexual mores of the ancient Roman culture of the time were much more liberal than most present-day cultures, although much of what might seem to us to be erotic imagery (eg. over-sized phalluses) was in fact fertility-imagery. This clash of cultures led to an unknown number of discoveries being hidden away again. A wall fresco which depicted Priapus, the ancient god of sex and fertility, with his extremely enlarged penis, was covered with plaster, even the older reproduction below was locked away "out of prudishness" and only opened on request and only rediscovered in 1998 due to rainfall.
In 1819, when King Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition at the National Museum with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a secret cabinet, accessible only to "people of mature age and respected morals". Re-opened, closed, re-opened again and then closed again for nearly 100 years, it was briefly made accessible again at the end of the 1960s (the time of the sexual revolution) and was finally re-opened for viewing in 2000. Minors are still only allowed entry to the once secret cabinet in the presence of a guardian or with written permission.
- Cities buried by volcanic eruptions
- Pompeii: The Last Day
- Aqua Augusta (Naples)
- Roman aqueducts
- Erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum
- The Fires of Pompeii
- House of the Faun
- House of the Vettii
- Villa of the Mysteries
- Mount Pelée (similar destructive eruption at Martinique in 1902)
- Armero tragedy; a city in Colombia that suffered the same fate
- House of Julia Felix
- Robert Rive, 1850s photographer of Pompeii
- Plymouth, Montserrat, a city buried by a volcano in more recent times