Fact, Faction and Fiction

The cultural filters through which successive generations view the past can be both enlightening and distorting. Distinguishing between the two is an ongoing task because fact, faction and fiction seamlessly merge as more and more filters overlap.


In addition to creating the Pompeian 'interior design' style in the mid-eighteenth century, Pompeian wall-paintings also had an immediate and lasting impact upon the development of academic and popular culture in Europe and its colonies. In the following centuries the nature of this impact was felt in surprisingly diverse ways as archaeological fact turned into faction, on the road to becoming pure fiction. Pompeii has probably generated more fact, faction and fiction than any other historical site. From a factual perspective its material remains substantially increased our knowledge of Roman culture as well as the classical and Hellenic world in general, since it was situated in what came to be known as Magna Graecia. The site also became the foremost testing ground for the emerging discipline of archaeology and as such enabled dilettante antiquarians to claim quasi-scientific status, even though most of their work entailed unearthing volcanic debris, as opposed to excavating beneath the 79AD layer, which has only taken place fairly recently (fig.1).

As antiquarians became archaeologists and the scientific understanding of the material remains increased, so did Pompeii’s Romanticisation. Operas and novels containing factionalised or in most cases purely fictional narratives about life in Pompeii gripped the popular imagination. Like the ‘Pompeian Style’ they became surrogates for the real thing. Fact was increasingly separated from both faction and outright fiction. The actual material remains revealed a city trying to regain normality, following a severe earthquake that occurred seventeen years before the final cataclysmic eruption. Nineteenth century artists and writers on the other hand turned the same city into a latter-day Sodom and Gomorrah. The everydayness of Pompeian life, documented in archaeological field-reports, stood no chance against the onslaught of nineteenth century melodramatic portrayals depicting a city gripped by licentiousness and the pursuit of hedonistic luxury. The once buried partial unearthed city, was once again reburied under a welter of fictionalised portrayals. As numerous cinematic versions of Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s The Last Days of Pompeii rained down on the city from the early twentieth century onwards, not even the rooftops remained visible. It took only five words, The Last Days of Pompeii, to destroy the social fabric of the ancient city, just as effectively as any volcano (fig.2). A few hours of sensationalised melodrama wiped out hundreds of years of meaningful social interaction (fig.3). Even as recently as 2003 the dramatised documentary Pompeii: The Last Day contained many of the hallmarks of Lytton’s Victorian melodrama (BBC/TVE co-production). Whilst it spared us the saccharin Christian community that Lytton invented in order to evoke a moral dimension, its sets typically consisted of an arbitrary selection of wall-paintings haphazardly placed in order to indicate that the drama was indeed taking place in Pompeii. The eruption, portrayed via computer graphics, was quite obviously the raison d’être for the programme, therefore, clichéd reference to antiquity and inappropriately placed copies of Pompeian wall-paintings were deemed to be sufficient contextualising material (fig.4).

 

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Aerial view Pompeii 1>
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Last days classics illustrated comic cover 3
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Eruptiopn sequence Last Days 1913Directed by Mario Caserini 2