A terrible beauty unearthed
The silent eloquence of Pompeii
By Robert Kilborn
Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero
[Seize the day, put very little trust in tomorrow]
— Horace (c. 23 BC)
Like the technological hubris that sank the Titanic, or the monstrous ideology that destroyed the World Trade Center, the sudden, shocking obliteration of Pompeii is an emblem of human achievement brought low in a humiliation of ruins. In this ancient Roman city, the idea of the ultimate benevolence of nature is annihilated in terror, volcanic ash, and instant death in 1000°C currents of hot gas and rock moving at 700 km/h.
Located at the western ankle of the boot of Italy, the 15,000-person city of Pompeii had been a Roman conquest since 80 BC. The ancient Oscan people who lived there had quickly assimilated into Roman culture. Tourists and residents exercised in the public gymnasium. They indulged in the delights of beautifully tiled and ornamented public and private baths and fountains supported by a complex water system. They laughed and wept at comedies and tragedies in the amphitheatre, worshipped at the elegantly-pillared temple of Apollo, and frequented 35 brothels. Ships laden with oil, wine, grain, fabrics, and works of art sailed in and out of the port. Many houses featured stylish wood, leather, and marble furniture, gardens with colonnades, lattice-work trellises and ornamental vases, imposing bronze and marble sculptures, and witty, erotic, or decorative trompe l’oeil frescoes. Finely-crafted perfumes, jewelry, household items and objets d’art further embellished lives devoted to the cultivation of beauty, pleasure, and civilized leisure.
On 24 August AD 79, this urbane idyll of the Pax Romana came to an abrupt end. Mount Vesuvius erupted and preserved Pompeii for posterity under 25 metres of volcanic ash, cinder, and rock. Roman author, magistrate, and governor Pliny the Younger witnessed the eruption. He tells us how his uncle, Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet, had ordered the ships of the Imperial Navy stationed at Misenum to cross the bay to assist evacuation attempts. Pliny the Elder was also a philosopher and a polymath. He wrote an encyclopedic work, Naturalis Historia, which became a model for all later encyclopedias. He died at Pompeii from toxic gas while trying to rescue his friend Pomponianus and his family.
Fortes fortuna iuvat
[Fortune favours the brave]
“Now ash was falling on the ships, hotter and heavier the nearer they approached; then pumice-stones, and even stones, blackened, burnt, and broken by fire; then unexpected shallows, and the collapse of the mountain as a blockage upon the shoreline. Having hesitated a bit about whether he should turn back, he [Pliny the Elder] soon said to the helmsman, who was advising that he do just that: ‘Fortune favors the brave: head for Pomponianus.’ ”
— Pliny the Younger, Letter to Tacitus (c. 104 AD)
In 1748, the unearthing of Pompeii created an international sensation. Lack of air and moisture had preserved an embarrassment of riches. Neither king nor commoner had ever seen anything like it before. Christians were shocked by giant phallus reliefs and wall paintings featuring sexual threesomes and cunnilingus. Connoisseurs were charmed by a fleshy pink fresco of the Three Graces, a graceful silver drinking cup ornamented in high relief ivy-leaves and berries, and an intensely alive floor mosaic of fish, crab, eel, oyster, and other succulent sea flesh.
In 1748, the unearthing of Pompeii created an international sensation. Lack of air and moisture had preserved an embarrassment of riches. Neither king nor commoner had ever seen anything like it before.
During the excavation, archaeologists used plaster to fill in the voids in the ash layers that once held human bodies. Couples, children, and even dogs, frozen in the postures of sudden death, are certainly among the most striking, and perhaps the most poignant, of all the Pompeiian images that have invaded our collective psyche.
In collaboration with their Italian counterparts, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and the Royal Ontario Museum have organized this selection of more than 220 of the best-preserved works from Pompeii. Artifacts from the also-destroyed neighbouring towns of Herculaneum and Stabiae are also on display. Documentary films and aural-visual environments, including an immersive volcanic eruption, enhance the pleasures of this fascinating exhibition.
ISIS delenda est
[ISIS must be destroyed]
Life, order, mind, art, nature, civilization — all is ephemeral. But we are here, now, at a time when the monsters of ISIS in Iraq, Syria, and Libya, in an attempt to erase history and impose their poisonous creed upon the world, are plundering, dynamiting, and bulldozing ancient art, mosques, shrines, temples, and palaces in Mosul, Tikrit, Nineveh, Palmyra, and Tripoli.
In this context, for the silent eloquence with which it speaks to all civilized people everywhere, how precious Pompeii seems.
Robert Kilborn has written fiction, nonfiction, essays, articles, and reviews for the National Post, the Montreal Gazette, La Scena Musicale, Westmount Magazine, Cult Montreal, Whitehot Magazine of Contemporary Art (New York), and Tuck Magazine (London, England). He started out as a rock singer. At the University of British Columbia he read Literature, Philosophy, and Art History. He’s been an English teacher, a restaurant consultant, a Don Draper, and General Manager of one of Canada’s leading modern dance companies, Anna Wyman Dance Theatre.