I HAD the good fortune to be invited to the opening day of the Royal Academy Winter Exhibition — Pompeii AD 79 — and it turned out to be a fascinating and rewarding experience. I wholeheartedly recommend it to readers of this column.
Pompeii and its tragic fate have long stirred the imaginations of all save the most stolidly prosaic and those pseudo sophisticates who affect to regard the city as a first century, boring Bournemouth.
In fact it was nothing of the kind: Brighton would provide a much better analogy and one would he hard put to find in any other English contemporary seaside town of similar site the number of beautiful objects which the erupting Vesuvius has preserved for posterity.
For nearly 1,700 years the city remained hidden in its lava tomb, but in the eighteenth century the first tenative efforts at rediscovery were made to be followed by the systematic excavations of the nineteenth, which inspired Bulwer Lytton's best known novel "The Last Days of Pompeii", revived in our own day by its transmogification onto the cinema screen.
Why does Pompeii still cast its spell all these hundreds of years later? Partly because the catastrophe was so sudden and complete. Vesuvius erupted on that August day so long ago with a ferocity that took the population totally by .surprise, since they had long imagined that its powers and terrors were extinct.
We know from the younger Pliny. who was staying with his un:le near at hand, that the day was cloudless and sunny when a sinister mushroom cloud (all too similar to the hellish pall that hung over Hiroshima and Nagasaki) was seen rising over the mainland.
"I cannot describe its appearance and shape better", he wrote, "than as resembling an umbrella pine tree, with a very tall trunk rising high into the sky and then spreading out in branches.
"1 imagine this was because where the force of the blast was fresh it was thrust upwards, but as this lost impetus, or indeed as the weight of the cloud itself took charge, it began to thin out and to spread laterally. At one moment it was white, at another dark and dirty, as if it carried up a load of earth and cinders."
To sudden destruction is added a sense of immediacy to a generation which, however much on the surface it may have decided to ignore the nuclear fate which overhangs it, cannot banish the fear and insecurity which lurk at an unconscious level. And the immediacy is heightened by the manner in which the ashes and lava have preserved over the centuries the everyday life of a prosperous and attractive little seaside town.
The table set for breakfast, the posters announcing the next municipal elections — the commonplace eternalised in a nightmare moment. One of the most moving exhibits is the unlucky dog, still wearing his bronze-studded collar who was left chained up at the back door of his house and suf
focated beneath the ashes and cinders which then hardened to form a perfect mould. Equally evocative is the body of a young woman lying prone on the
ground while she vainly endeavoured to keep off the fumes of falling ash and cinders by pulling
her tunic over her face. Like the vast majority of victims of the disaster, she died of suffocation.
The only ones to escape were those who fled the city at once either taking to the sea in their boats or scurrying along the exit roads before they became blocked.
Those who hesitated or waited to collect their valued, possessions can be seen melted into the gold and silver which meant so much to them.
Pliny, the Elder met a similar fate but for a nobler cause: true scientist that he was, he set off by boat not away from the shore but towards it, so that he could get a better view of what was going on, and perished from suffocation.
Pompeii was much more than a seaside resort, although that was what it had become at the time of its destruction, boasting some splendid houses of the rich and the famous who sought (as so many do today) some relief from urban stress. It was a city of Hellenistic 'foundation, a prosperous agricultural market town with a thriving port.
The peace that was imposed throughout the Roman world by Augustus in AD 31 was of incalculable benefit, although the city was not to survive long to enjoy it. Two earlier major events in the town's story have been recorded in the history books. Pompeii, like most Roman provincial towns, had its own amphitheatre, and in AD 59 a riot broke out after one of the gladiatorial contests which resulted in a number of spectators being killed.
Rome itself took notice and imposed a ban of ten years on such sports in the future. It was as if London had imposed a ban on football matches at the stadium in Glasgow for a decade after a bloody Celtic-Rangers affray? The other event we know of was the major earthquake in AD62 which destroyed much of the town still in process of being rebuilt when the further disaster struck. We can sec them now as two parts of the same event, but that was not obvious at the time in a region where earthquakes had long been experienced and no one could recall a volcanic eruption, and the warning went unheeded.
Pompeii also enjoyed a flourishing religious life which is fully represented in the exhibition: the darker "Soho" side, which is rather better known, has mercifully been excluded, but that is no great loss to us who know so much about that sort of thing in our own disfigured cities. The older gods great and small, the deities of field and sea and river were worshipped in the town, but the cults that were really alive and flourishing were the mysteries with their uncanny parallels with Christianity already at work in its conquest of the heart of the Roman world.
Pompeii, alas, was never to see that apotheosis. The city was doomed; and we gaze at it now as though in amber caught for ever in a moment of time, human, familiar and unredeemed.