POMPEII: Gods Indifferent To The Power of Prayer

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.

Mimmo Jodice Image. Corbis. An innocent looking Vesuvius rises steeply behind the grape-clad figure of bacchus in this first century fesco from a house in Pompeii. The snake is a symbol of good luck, a sort of Pompeian rabbit's foot-and, in the event, no more effective.

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.

Thebronze statue of an athlete found at Herculaneum, nine miles from Pompeii, is probably a copy of an original Greek work from the Hellenistic period.

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.

Judith Harris:But from the outset of rediscovery Pompeii was seen as a producer of visual pornography. In discoveries that to this day condition attitudes toward Pompeii throughout the world, objects of an obvious sexual content were excavated. The conclusion seemed obvious: in Pompeii, erotic pictures were not a vulgar exception, they were the rule. All this fought against the uplifting image cultivated by the Bourbon-Farnesi rulers of Naples and the Two Sicilies, beginning with King Charles III. Although the 18th-century erudites were familiar with risqué ancient poetry, and possibly had seen vases with obscene motifs and the wall paintings of Etruscan tombs, in which light-hearted banquets were underway and the sex implicit, nothing like this had ever been seen, and surely not in such quantity. From the ruins emerged both mildly erotic and blatantly pornographic scenes,...

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.

"Technically, the frescoes convince any viewer that the Romans were utterly and completely concerned with the creation of images that depicted a world much like our own. The human bodies shown are anatomically correct and they move and occupy space in a manner similar to our own. As well, any number of illusionistic frescoes make it clear that the Romans understood how to show three-dimensional perspective on a two-dimensional surface, for they go to great lengths to create images that make it appear as if the wall surface has disappeared and one is looking out into a garden, a landscape, or a world of fantastic architecture."

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 least

teen 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.

Io (on the left, with horns) is welcomed in Egypt by Isis (sitting, holding a snake and with a crocodile at her feet). Io is carried by a river god, setting her down at Kanopus near Alexandria. Roman fresco from the temple of Isis in Pompeii. Museo Archeologico Nazionale (Naples)

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.

" In 1819, when king Francis I of Naples visited the 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 made briefly accessible again at the end of the 1960s (the time of the sexual revolution) and has finally been re-opened in the year 2000. Minors are not allowed entry to the once secret cabinet without a guardian or a written permission."

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 )

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