When the ruins came to light, they caused a revolution in taste-stripping away rococo gilt, reshaping the female figure, and leaving deposit of pseudo-Greek temples from Moscow to Mississippi- although what sometimes passed for “classical” would have bewildered the ancients.
Before the two great natural disasters of the first century A.D. – the earthquake of 63 and the volcanic eruption of 79-Herculaneum and Pompeii had achieved had achieved a reputation for gracious and prosperous living. They were beautifully situated on the bay of Naples; blessed with a delightful climate; and they had enjoyed a peaceful , untroubled existence since Sparatacus – the fugitive slave and famous gladiator- had threatened their security in 73 B.C. Not surprisingly, such a site had proved attractive to the rich, and the leisured classes of Rome were quick to flee from their teeming streets and noisy plebs for the easy life of campania.
It was a world which indulged itself in luxury and the decorative arts; bronzes and statues multiplied like weeds. The frank assurance of the inscription “Profit means joy” was based on long experience; and the cheerful slogan “salve lucrum” inscribed over so many Pompeian thresholds, seems rarely to have been disappointed. Urged on a supported by the convenient philosophy of Philodemus, who had skillfully adapted the teaching of Epicurus to justify a taste for luxurious living, the Campanians constantly extended their search for amusement and comfort. They had little use for Christianity, the latest fashion in religions, and preferred their own gods- greater in number and more accommodating in morals.
Indeed, the erotic adventures of the gods were easily the most popular subject for frescoes: Jupiter was to be found almost everywhere, busily preoccupied with the seduction of Danae, Io, or Leda, or, having been balked, with the rape of Europa. In a dozen frescoes, Apollo hotly pursues Daphne, while Venus, even more heavily employed, shares her favor fifteen times with Mars and sixteen times with the beautiful Adonis. And even when the gods were exhausted, there remained ample erotic content to be depicted in the activities of the Campanians themselves. Their sensual preoccupations seemed to provide artistic inspiration at all levels: from the obscene frescoes in the brothels, with their humorous Priapean drawings, to the magnificent set of frescoes of the prohibited Dionysian mysteries , which portray the flagellation of the naked postulant following the unveiling of the sacred phallus.
In fact the general ambiance was one of sensuous and erotic pleasure, high artistic achievement, and lavish self-indulgence. But this atmosphere of peace, luxury and sensuous delight was not destined to last. For suddenly, at midday on the fifth of Ferruary, A.D. 63, from the heart of Vesuvius- that innocent looking mountain, came a terrible earthquake. The results were catastrophic- buildings collapsed, streets were blocked, six hundred sheep were engulfed by a great chasm which opened in the earth.
Many were killed an injured in the first shock, but most of the inhabitants fled to the countryside screaming in fear and execrating the gods for their treachery. Some never returned, but gradually, most of them drifted back, and the work of reconstruction began amid a welter of sacrifices and prayers designed to appease the angry gods. Unfortunately, the forces that had shaken their world were no battling titans or displeased gods. They were all too natural, and indifferent to the powers of prayer. The pent up steam and gases that were seeking an outlet in Vesuvius broke out again like a monstrous angry boil sixteen years later and transformed the lovely towns into cemeteries.
Herculaneum fared the worst with mud slides from sudden torrential rain which engulfed the city into a vast tomb beneath forty feet of slowly hardening mud. In Pompeii, they died suffocated by the sulphurous fumes and then buried by the volcanic ash and pebbles. The loss of life was terrible. At leastteen thousand people died in Pompeii alone. Soon all were buried by the remorseless ash.
And along with the dead and dying, the wonderful statues, buildings, temples, villas, altars and arenas were all engulfed; it was a vault for priceless pieces of art along with their owners preserved under the ashes and mud like prawns in aspic. Entombed in the first century A.D. , they lay undiscovered until the Austrian occupation of 1710, when a peasant, began to deepen his well in an attempt to improve his water supply and came across great quantities of marble, alabaster, and other costly stone.
This aroused little interest at first. But then an Austrian colonel, Maurice of Lorraine, Prince of Elbeuf, bought the peasants land and dug deeper in search of more such excellent materials for the new villa he was building nearby. He suddenly found himself the owner of a whole museum of antiquity. Precious marbles, decorated columns, bronze candelabras, and vases in profusion were discovered: most exciting of all, his workmen disinterred three magnificent marble statues of young women- for by sheer chance the well had hit right in the theatre of Herculaneum.
Amazingly, little happened. Elbeuf, discouraged by the absence of further immediate success, by the expense, and by the hostility of the natives at losing their subterranean treasures, discontinued his searches. Herculaneum sank once more into oblivion, an oblivion darkened and deepened by the activities of Vesuvius. Between 1717 and 1737 the volcanic activity was such that it has been likened to a continuous eruption, lasting twenty years and reaching a climax in 1737. With a constant flow of lava, flying debris, and sulphurous gases to contend with, no one gave much thought to Herculaneum. ( to be continued )