Turning a Catastrophe into a Melodrama


Painters were amongst the first to create spectacular visualisations of the death throes of Pompeii. For them its cataclysmic destruction came to signify the concept of the sublime defined by Edmund Burke (1729-1797) in his influential work Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, published in 1756. His ideas provided the conceptual underpinning for a new landscape genre that foregrounded nature's awe-inspiring power. Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797) was an early exponent. Spurred on by Burke’s idea that the sublime could only be experienced through close proximity to the terrifying forces of nature, in 1773 he went to experience and paint the still active Vesuvius (fig.1). Vesuvius and its ‘victim’ Pompeii appealed to Wright’s longstanding fascination with human frailty confronted by the unremitting power of nature. Whilst Wright confined himself to topographical studies that reflected his scientific-sublime interest in volcanoes, other artists used them as symbols of divine retribution. An early example of this is John Martin’s painting the Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (1822), which he later adapted into an apocalyptic version of the Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852) (fig.2). Another notable example of this genre is Hamilton's 1864 painting (fig.3).

The destruction of Pompeii as a metaphor for divine retribution also became a reoccurring theme in many other romantic literary and visual genres. The most notable of these were produced by a strange ménage à trois involving Giovanni Pacini - an Italian operatic composer, Karl Briullov - a Russian painter and Edward George Bulwer-Lytton - English novelist and Tory politician. The pictorial and literary versions of The Last Days of Pompeii produced by Briullov and Lytton had a particularly lasting effect upon popular and academic perceptions of Roman wall-painting. In his highly influential 1899 publication Pompeii – Its Life and Art, the eminent archaeologist August Mau, corrected Lytton on a minor ‘natural error’ in his text (Macmillan edition: 213), whilst totally failing to point out to his readership that the religious premise that the book is built upon was totally false. Nevertheless, schoolboy/girl readings of Last Days undoubtedly created several generations of Pompeian scholars and archaeologists.

Pacini’s Opera L’ultimo giorno di Pompei premiered at the San Carlos Theatre in Naples in 1825, involved doomed lovers, jealous scheming suitors, retribution and the first volcanic eruption to be produced on stage. From the point of view of this chapter its significance lies in the near certainty that Briullov took Pacini’s cocktail of doomed love in a spectacularly domed city and then added an even more volatile ingredient. He introduced a religious dimension that played upon contemporary Christian attitudes towards paganism. Whether or not he did this in the knowledge that no Christian community existed in Pompeii is uncertain, however, what is certain is that it added to the paintings notoriety. In 1833 it was shown to great acclaim in several of Europe’s major cities and went on to become the most famous pictorial version of the eruption theme, in addition to initiating a new school of Russian painting (fig.4). Dated sketches by Briullov place him in Naples in the same year as the premier of Pacini’s Opera and Briullov appears to acknowledge his debt to Pacini by incorporating into the painting portraits of the composer’s daughters Amazilia and Giovanna. They appear cradled in the arms of a woman modeled on the Countess Samoilova, who was also the patron and alleged lover of both men.

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Wright of Derby Vesuvius erupting 1
John Martin The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum 1821 2>
Karl Briullov The LAst days of Pompeii 1833 4>
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1 Joseph Wright, Vesuvius from Portici, 1774-1776, National Gallery of Art Washington, DC

James Hamilton The Last days of Pompeii 3>