79 CE, The volcano of Vesuvius erupts, stones and ashes are thrown into the air, raining on the terrified people in the cities of Herculaneum, Stabia and Pompeii. It must have seemed like the wrath of the gods for those who had to suffer in the ashes of the eruption. As Pliny the younger recounts:
„Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood. […]
You could hear the shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men; some were calling their parents, others their children or their wives, trying to recognize them by their voices. People bewailed their own fate or that of their relatives, and there were some who prayed for death in their terror of dying. Many besought the aid of the gods, but still more imagined there were no gods left, and that the universe was plunged into eternal darkness for evermore.“
His letters are one of the first accurate descriptions of a volcanic eruption in known history. At first it seems, people didn‘t exactly know what to make of it or how to interpret the warning signs. Elsewhere in his letter he describes how his uncle was curious to investigate a strange, dark cloud, rising over a mountain in the distance. However, when he got a message calling for help from a city closer to Vesuvius, he led a fleet to rescue. And he did succeed to save some, however died in the process.
What was a horror in the past, turned out to be a treasure chest for archaeology later on. Nowadays Pompeii is the most complete Roman city that one can still walk in. Of course everything is in ruins. Yet it is impressive to see how much has been preserved. Street after street with tall walls of houses, the ancient forum, then the centre of the city, now the meeting and resting place for all the tourists. The ruins of the bath still show parts of the ancient frescoes and wall paintings. And the amphitheatre, where Pink Floyd once played is still almost as it was just left the day before. Only some plants are invading the cracks and crevices between the stones.
Impressive the „statues“ of people that perished in the disaster. Killed by a 500°C hot cloud of gas and ashes, speeding down the flanks of the mountain, their bodies were buried under tons of rock and ashes and due to the fire and heat completely disappeared, leaving a hollow space of their last moment. Later discovered by archaeologist, their exact posture was immortalised in statues made by taking a mold from the hollow forms in the ground. However it raises ethical questions. Can we just exhibit them, should we treat them as human remains and preserve their dignity? It may well be almost 2000 years ago, that they died. Yet we are able to look them into the face and almost witness their gruesome death. Surely it is adequate to take a moment and remember their suffering and realise that those were humans, not just some statues of cold marble.
The way they are displayed in Pompeii is very raw, very much throwing the sight of the dead at the living, unsuspecting spectators. And in a way this is enough to make one think and sympathise with a person unknown, from a time long bygone. But then it also puts their death on display, makes it a sensation, a goal for paying tourists and ever clicking camera shutters. Can we do that? Can we just throw them out into the eye of mass tourism, their death just another sensation for the modern visitor?
On the one hand, especially in this case, we are just dealing with a mass of concrete that looks like a human body in the moment of death. It is just a collection of matter shaped like a corpse. So why not treat it like any other statue? Beautiful and sublime, yet ultimately cold and lifeless. On the other hand this is the exact depiction of a real death gruesome and horrid. Are we not obligated to feel empathy with their suffering and approach their image with due solemnity?
I come to think that there is no need for a change in presentation, for a more sombre atmosphere, for gravestones or a chapel of sorts. For the rawness of suddenly coming face to face with someone’s last moment elicits empathy and solemnity all on its own. Perhaps not with everyone. For some it will be nothing more than a fun occasion for a selfie with the dead. A short amusement between ice cream, the beach and pizza.
But I dare to believe that many visitors will stop a moment in their tracks to think about these fellow human beings from two thousand years ago and connect with them in a very basic and human way, by remembering their shared mortality.
And isn‘t that the greatest respect we can give, to still commemorate someone after such a long time, to still visit them, immortalising them in our collective memory?
Text and pictures: Mathis Gilsbach
The Destruction of Pompeii, 79 AD,” EyeWitness to History, http://www.eyewitnesstohistory.com (1999).