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From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town

From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town

by Ingrid D. Rowland

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When Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, the force of the explosion blew the top right off the mountain, burying nearby Pompeii in a shower of volcanic ash. Ironically, the calamity that proved so lethal for Pompeii's inhabitants preserved the city for centuries, leaving behind a snapshot of Roman daily life that has captured the imagination of generations.

The experience


When Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, the force of the explosion blew the top right off the mountain, burying nearby Pompeii in a shower of volcanic ash. Ironically, the calamity that proved so lethal for Pompeii's inhabitants preserved the city for centuries, leaving behind a snapshot of Roman daily life that has captured the imagination of generations.

The experience of Pompeii always reflects a particular time and sensibility, says Ingrid Rowland. From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town explores the fascinating variety of these different experiences, as described by the artists, writers, actors, and others who have toured the excavated site. The city's houses, temples, gardens--and traces of Vesuvius's human victims--have elicited responses ranging from awe to embarrassment, with shifting cultural tastes playing an important role. The erotic frescoes that appalled eighteenth-century viewers inspired Renoir to change the way he painted. For Freud, visiting Pompeii was as therapeutic as a session of psychoanalysis. Crown Prince Hirohito, arriving in the Bay of Naples by battleship, found Pompeii interesting, but Vesuvius, to his eyes, was just an ugly version of Mount Fuji. Rowland treats readers to the distinctive, often quirky responses of visitors ranging from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Charles Dickens, and Mark Twain to Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman.

Interwoven throughout a narrative lush with detail and insight is the thread of Rowland's own impressions of Pompeii, where she has returned many times since first visiting in 1962.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 CE, its ash covered and preserved the ancient town of Pompeii and its inhabitants. One of the world’s first places to be archaeologically excavated in a systematic fashion, Pompeii has captured popular imagination—its lands are rich and fertile and it functions as a portal into history. Yet even before the first exploration and dig, Pompeii has been in the public mind. Rowland, a professor at the Univ of Notre Dame School of Architecture in Rome, has had a love affair with Pompeii since she was a child and here constructs an overview of Pompeii’s history by collecting the opinions and work of famous figures: artists, writers, musicians, actors, and royalty, including Renoir, Mozart, Ingrid Bergman, and Crown Prince Hirohito of Japan. All of the individuals included experienced Pompeii and its environs firsthand—though some, like Mark Twain and Charles Dickens, did not always see them in a positive light. Rowland’s work, replete with lyrical verse and beautiful descriptions of Southern Italy, highlights potential problems with preservation, and though it lacks a coherent structure, it wistfully captures the atmosphere of a place both beautiful and dangerous. (Mar.)
Stephen Greenblatt
Ingrid D. Rowland's richly learned From Pompeii is a wonderfully well-written, funny, fascinating, and oddly poignant tour through the many afterlives of the ancient city. This is a brilliant book about the pleasures and perils of archaeology, historical preservation, and cultural tourism, stumbling over one another in a quixotic search for the traces of the dead.
Kenneth Lapatin
Original, highly illuminating, and fun—brimming with ideas and observations—and many surprises for those familiar with Pompeii as well as for new visitors to the Bay of Naples. This is classic Rowland!
Booklist - Vanessa Bush
[An] engaging look at the allure of an ancient city.
New Yorker - Andrea DenHoed
Visitors to Pompeii have long marveled at the town’s perfectly preserved scenes of Roman life, but interpretations of those scenes have varied widely over the years. Rowland writes about a selection of those visitors, some famous--like Renoir, whose painting style was influenced by the town’s erotic frescoes--others less well known-- like a priest named Father Kircher, who risked the wrath of the Inquisition when he suggested that the eruption of Vesuvius was ‘in response to gigantic cycles within the earth itself rather than God’s pique at individual sinners.’ Each story speaks to the way in which Pompeii reveals the hopes and the desires of the individuals and of societies.
Literary Review - Allan Massie
This is a book difficult, even impossible, to summarize…Rowland’s enthusiasm for her subject and her knowledge of history are such that many will find interest and pleasure in dipping into it, pulling out a plum here or there.
Wall Street Journal - Dan Hofstadter
[Rowland’s] book is a personal, indeed highly selective, account of what many researchers, cultivated visitors, archaeologists and even urban reformers have made of the site and the modern town of Pompeii: It reads, all told, like a collection of entertaining essays. She handles her theme with an ease and authority that should please others who are fond of Campania, the Neapolitan region, an area of great beauty and equally great social and environmental problem…Rowland covers a wide range of topics, including the creation of the modern town of Pompeii, the musings of tourists like Dickens and Mark Twain, and diverse aspects of Neapolitan folklore.
The Guardian - Emily Gowers
Elegant, witty and beautifully produced…It is less a guide than an overtly aesthetic appreciation of the site and its environs, poetic in its sense of connections over time…It is more the gap between individual drama and universal catastrophe, both inside Pompeii and looking on from outside, that Rowland’s account so powerfully conjures up.
Sunday Telegraph - Chloe Chard
From Pompeii is immensely lively and thought-provoking…The book is crammed with telling details and entertaining snippets.
Washington Post - Michael Dirda
Its historical breadth and richness notwithstanding, From Pompeii is a surprisingly intimate book. Rowland begins with her first encounter with Herculaneum as an 8-year-old with a Brownie Starmite camera…From Pompeii is thus a personal, even idiosyncratic, introduction to Pompeii in the mode of, say, the novelist E. M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and a Guide…If you have any interest in Pompeii, or in entertaining scholarship, or in Italian culture, you’ll want to set aside a few evenings for this deeply engaging work of popular history.
Sydney Morning Herald - Luke Slattery
The book is an entertaining canter through two millennia of history, deeply learned without succumbing to stuffiness or superiority… Rowland is a lively writer and her tale of Pompeii’s rediscovery and excavation is engaging. She skillfully brings to light details of the world unearthed at Pompeii--the various styles of painting identified by art historians, the social purpose of the god Priapus--and splices these into her narrative of discovery. In the process she never loses sight of the relationship between this recovery of antiquity’s physical remains and the 18th century’s vibrant neo-classicism. The former clearly nourished the latter, but the story turns out to be more complicated than first thought.
The Spectator - Tom Holland
[Told] in rich and fascinating detail…When Rowland tells us that a visit to Pompeii can change a person’s life, she is speaking from personal experience.
Times Higher Education - Rebecca Langlands
[A] lively book…For Pompeii is not really frozen in time. The achievement of Rowland's book is precisely to show it at the heart of a turbulent, ever-changing region, where the landscape and people are forever caught up in transformation and drama--whether geological, political, technological or cultural. She beautifully evokes the connections between the local, the international, the spiritual and the seismic…For Rowland, Pompeii is the fount from which innumerable rivulets of history flow, and her fluent and engaging writing follows them where it will…This is a vivid and stimulating account of the history of a corner of the earth where there seems too much colorful humanity ever to be adequately captured in a single book. Rowland’s brimming pages show there are plenty more treasures to be excavated from the fertile volcanic soil of its history.
Weekly Standard - James M. Banner Jr.
There’s probably no one more qualified to have a go at this subject than Rowland…She possesses unsurpassed knowledge of whatever she takes up, and this work is no exception…It will delight any reader who likes the serious laced with the macabre and bizarre, the ancient with the modern…We never tire of her deeply knowledgeable entertainment…[A] genial, learned travelogue…It’s one of the pleasures of Rowland’s tour that we get to meet with Pompeii’s visitors over the centuries, as varied a cast of characters as might be dreamed up…While this is in no sense a guidebook to Pompeii and Herculaneum, anyone planning to visit Italy’s southwest coast will gain from taking Rowland’s fast-paced historical tour beforehand…[A] splendid book.
Library Journal
In 79 AD, a blast of heat and ash from Mount Vesuvius perfectly preserved the bustling Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum. When uncovered nearly 1,500 years later, the cities came to represent a symbolic and physical connection to antiquity. Rowland (architecture, Univ. of Notre Dame Sch. of Architecture, Rome) takes a selective and rambling look at these cities of the dead on the outskirts of Naples through the eyes and works of some of their lesser known and more celebrated visitors. Auguste Renoir, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Sigmund Freud, Mark Twain, and Emperor Hirohito of Japan are just a few of those who have been influenced by Pompeii, along with centuries of students, academics, working professionals, and tourists whose visits to the petrified town have led them to reflect on the power of nature and the intertwining fragility of life and death. Alongside these stories Rowland includes others about the discovery of the site in 1599 as well as its excavation and continued maintenance. Despite the author's tendency to focus on tangential details and anecdotes, the book is an enjoyable read that encompasses an exciting range of topics in political and social history. VERDICT Recommended for general readers who want to know more about a place that continues to haunt the imagination of nearly everyone who visits it.—Linda Frederiksen, Washington State Univ. Lib., Vancouver
Kirkus Reviews
Rowland traces the history of Pompeii (Architecture/Notre Dame Univ.; Giordano Bruno: Philosopher/Heretic, 2008, etc.) since the cataclysmic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79. A lifetime of trips to the ruins of that buried city have shown the author how it has changed since that time, through years of both neglect and excessive restoration. It was generally forgotten until the 16th century, when clues began to emerge as to its exact location. Artifacts from Herculaneum were found first near the wells of Resina by adventurous explorers, who were lowered 65 feet to explore the subterranean structures first hinted at by a canal dug in the 1590s. Lukas Holste's theory that Pompeii was located beneath the hill at Cività wasn't confirmed until the mid-1700s, and the site and city languished through the years until Giuseppe Fiorelli began top-down excavation in the 1860s. Fiorelli injected plaster into the oddly shaped bubbles to produce the casts of those who died centuries earlier. The patron saint, San Gennaro, whose blood liquefies each year on his feast day, is highly revered, and it is true that when his blood remains dry, catastrophes arrive—e.g., earthquakes, eruptions, even bombing during World War II. Bartolo Longo came in as a reformer in the 1880s and built New Pompeii with a church, schools and housing for those who lived in these "badlands." In addition to the history, Rowland also discusses famous visitors to the site. Mozart was more affected by the castrato voices he heard in Napoli, and Freud deduced that the psyche was surely a similar archaeological site to be excavated. Those visitors are not nearly as interesting as those who excavated it and the city itself. Rowland provides abundant photographs, but many readers will wish for more about the everyday life of Pompeii.

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Meet the Author

Ingrid D. Rowland is a Professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture in Rome.

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