The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, and Redemption

Date: February 21, 2010

Time: 2:00
Location: Manhattanville College, 2900 Purchase Street, Purchase
Speakers: Kenneth Lapatin, J. Paul Getty Museum

Pompeii is perhaps the best known archaeological site in the world. It and other sites destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in AD 79 have been the subject of numerous books, articles, exhibitions, films, television documentaries, etc., all of which, rightly, tend to focus on ancient artifacts and their recovery, with reception included, if at all, as a coda. This lecture, in contrast, examines the paradigmatic role of the destruction of Vesuvian sites on the modern imaginary, exploring the allegorical constructs of decadence, apocalypse, and salvation through painting, sculpture, and other media from the rediscovery of sites in the eighteenth century to the present day. The interplay between history and science, on the one hand, and staged fiction on the other, will be a major sub-theme, for the tragedy of these cities’ demise has long been the foil to empirical and archaeological interest, with its focus on excavation, classification, and recovering a sense of daily Roman life. Pompeii has persisted in western culture as the archetype for a destroyed civilization to the point to which other disasters-from the 1755 Lisbon earthquake to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina-are regularly compared to it. Catalyzed by the publication of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s Last Days of Pompeii, a wildly popular 1834 novel that melded a Victorian love story with sensational narratives of pagan decadence, Christian subculture, and volcanic eruption glossed with a thin veneer of archaeology, Pompeii has become a platform on which fascination with apocalypse is inexorably linked to (mis)understandings of antiquity. Although seemingly the site where we can recover directly the everyday the life of the ancients, Pompeii is regularly treated anachronistically, in the sense of the disaster being inevitable, cataclysm predestined, portents ignored, and punishment deserved. Indeed, today it is impossible to imagine Pompeii without thinking about the disaster. This lecture will examine how successive generations made the ancient tragedy their own as they vicariously relive the dramatic events of AD 79, albeit from a comfortable temporal distance, and will illustrate these acts of cultural appropriation and projection through some of the finest visual and literary imaginations of the last three centuries.

Lapatin is Associate Curator of Antiquities with the J. Paul Getty Museum. He holds his degrees from the University of California, Berkeley (Ph.D.), and Oxford University (M. Stud.), and his areas of specialization are ancient Mediterranean Art and archaeology (particularly the Aegean Bronze Age, Greek and Roman), historiography, forgery, reception, and luxury arts. He has conducted fieldwork in Caesaria Maritima (Israel), Roma and Corinth, and his main publications include “Chryselephantine Statuary in the Ancient Mediterranean World”, and “Mysteries of the Snake Goddess: Art, Desire, and the Forging of History”. Dr. Lapatin is the AIA’s 2009/2010 Joukowsky Lecturer.

This program is sponsored by the Archaeological Institute of America Westchester Society.