“The city of the dead,” Sir Walter Scott called it. The re-emergence of Pompeii from its seventeen centuries of entombment evoked the reverent awe of our forebears, who bequeathed to us masterpieces of their creative art depicting the disaster of 79 AD. Hardly anyone has read Bulwer-Lytton's novel, 'The Last Days of Pompeii', but everyone knows its name and modern picture books of the same title are still on sale outside the ruins. Modern writers and film makers have also been inspired by the story. But today, as one of the fifty most visited tourist sites in the world, Pompeii is too crowded with the living to evoke a ghostly atmosphere for any but the most self-contained observer.
Although the determined photographer may, with patience, still capture close-ups of uninhabited buildings, a longer shot inevitably includes an incongruous miscellany of people dressed in tee-shirts, shorts and sun hats, some dragging unwilling children, some in silence, some eagerly discoursing in all the languages of the earth and most in straggling, sweaty pursuit of a bronzed and athletic guide whose muscles have been toned by a couple of pedestrian circuits of the hilly city each day. A contemplative reverie as you endeavour to recreate in your mind the daily life of the past is sure to be interrupted.
Following excavation, exposure to the elements now combines with the corrosive effect of two and a half million visitors annually to tarnish the archaeological jewel that has fired our imaginations. Yet a fortune is required to preserve what has already been unearthed, and another fortune to excavate a third of the ancient city that remains buried. How are these funds to be raised, particularly in an age of financial austerity, but by promotion of the very tourism that exacerbates the problem? Scott's ghosts now flee from the invading hordes who, as Wilde observed, kill the things they love. Not long after my visit I was saddened to hear of the collapse of a wall in the gladiators' school (right), which I had myself visited.
Somehow though, the vulgar throngs and accelerating decay cannot subdue the wonder of Pompeii. Stand in its cobbled streets and gaze towards brooding Vesuvius, marvelling at how fully life can be lived on the edge of destruction. Pompeii’s citizens, like their modern Neapolitan heirs, convinced themselves that the fire of Vulcan’s forge was dowsed for good. Baths and restaurants, temples and brothels, villas and theatres cluster around the spacious forum; every street immersing us in the infrastructure of an exotic yet strangely familiar culture.
For those who remember the rebellious flowering of the 1960’s, the so-called degeneracy of Pompeii resembles nothing so much as the bountiful but brittle culture that flourished in the early shadow of the bomb; there is the same determination to enjoy life and to ignore convention, to create, to experience, to push forward all kinds of frontiers, to laugh at risk, to live for the day.
In a way we envy the citizens of Pompeii just as we look back nostalgically on these our former selves. They were, perhaps, wrong; we were, perhaps, wrong; but somehow it all feels worth it, not only for its own time but for what it has left behind.