Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

Main Page This family-friendly site celebrates Italian culture for the enjoyment of children and adults. Site-Overview



Vesuvius and Pompeii


















Books about Pompeii Below

1890 Images and account of visit to Pompeii Below








Roman Fresco from the Oplonti Villa in Pompeii Depicting a Birdbath




Roman Fresco from the Oplonti Villa in Pompeii Depicting a Flying Bird




Detail of a Woman from the Fresco Cycle at the Villa of the Mysteries




Detail of a Woman and a Boy from the Fresco Cycle at the Villa of the Mysteries


Mount Vesuvius, mainland Europe's most active volcano, can be seen from Naples, Italy, and is a favorite subject of artists, tourists, and especially naturalists who visit Vesuvius today, but even more often in the 1800s to observe her then frequent eruptions. 

Some of the most impressive images of Vesuvius erupting are photographs from it's last eruption in 1944.  The U.S. military had retaken the area from the Nazi's, so the military photographers were on hand to photograph the event.  The lava flows were slow-moving, so few lives were lost, but homes and villages were destroyed.

Many images of Vesuvius's eruption in 1944

Although Mount Vesuvius erupts regularly in geological terms, it's the eruption in the year 79 that fascinates people the most.  That's because the time-capsule-like remains of the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, both devastated by the 79 eruption, have been attracting visitors since their discovery in 1738 (Herculaneum) and 1748 (Pompeii).

And historians relive the year 79 eruption by reading a detailed account of of the 19 hour eruption of ash, rock and pyroclastic flows that the Roman politician and early naturalist Pliny the Younger recorded.

An artist made this evocative depiction of the eruption, with the Roman town awaiting it's doom from the approaching lava flows.

This actual photograph from today shows how close the artist got to what probably took place in 79 A.D.

Pliny's uncle, Pliny the Elder, went by ship to get a closer view of the eruption, and to assist in the rescue of survivors from the shore.  But he never returned. He died while sheltering on shore from the rain of stones and ash, perhaps from a stroke or heart attack.

Over the years, the year 79 eruption has captured the imaginations of scientists, artists and the public alike.  Tourists to Italy have always made Pompeii a must-see stop on their tours

I report below an abridged account by the writer William Dean Howells of his return visit in 1908 to Pompeii after a first visit in 1864 on his honeymoon.  He gives a very good impression of what Pompeii, and Italy, was like back then.  He also quotes from an Italian guide book of the period, translated into dubious English.

Pompeii and Herculaneum together had populations of perhaps 25,000.  It's believed that at least 1500 people died in the towns from the 79 eruption, but the number may well be greater. 

The earthquakes that preceded the eruption, and the long eruption process gave most people plenty of time to leave before the fatal flows arrives at the towns.

Pompeii is unique because it's a Roman town that has not been altered since the Roman period.  Other Roman towns have continued to be lived in, and changed over the years.

In Pompeii we can see things that help us imagine, as the art below shows, just how things looked back in the year 79.

The major roads with shops lining them, and homes above the shops, and the major market area.

The forum, auditoriums, and police/soldier barracks.

Public and private baths.

Shops, restaurants, hotels, modest homes, vacation villas.

Schools, graffiti, advertising slogans, beware-of-dog signs, and their love of their pets, things that make the people of the ancient Roman empire seem human.

And we can see lots of evidence of pagan worship combined with the Mediterranean wide phallic worship

This phallic worship can still be seen today throughout the Mediterranean region in the phallic statues readily available at tourist centers, and in the attachment to representations of bull's horns on chains around young men's necks.

Pompeian home decor, as it was uncovered, influence European home decor.  Books were compiled of Pompeian designs for homeowners to copy, some of which appear reproduced on this page.

Pompeian fashions influenced modern fashions. 

Jewelry and hair styles were copied.

Gardens and villas were emulated. 

It's hard to overplay the influence of the discovery of Pompeii on the arts of Europe, and in the minds of Europeans, but it requires a study of it's own, and this page is just an introduction to the subject.

If you want to read more on the web about Pompeii, the Wikipedia article on Pompeii contains a lot of information and many links to interesting Pompeii sites.  And this is the official website for the archeological site.

But I highly recommend a site set up by the Cole Family who lived near Pompeii for work, and took an especial interest in it.  Their site is wonderfully informative, illustrated, and interesting, and from a refreshingly Christian perspective on that pagan period, adding greater understanding of life in Pompeii.

Below you can find some books about Pompeii  from

The BBC recently produced a television film about Pompeii, and made this site to accompany it.  Here are some Pompeii DVDs.


Here following are images from 1890 of Pompeii.

And after the images, you'll find an account by a tourist from that same time period, the journalist and novelist William Dean Howells.









Pompeii and Vesuvius Circa 1890 - 1900

This colorchrome image is from 1890 showing how the House of Vetti Peristyle looked at that time, about the time of the account below by William Dean Howells.


Tour guides would take people up to the crater of the volcano.



These extraordinary images come from the Old Picture site.  It is a wonderful place to browse the past.  If you are an educator, it is a fantastic resource for lessons, bringing the past to life in a way mere words or paintings cannot.  This is the link to their Italy category, and this link is to their home page.



(abridged from Roman Holidays by the writer William Dean Howells, 1908, who had previously visited the site in 1865)

The country through which we made the hour's run [ed. by train] was sympathetically squalid. We had, to be sure, the sea on one side, and that was clean enough; but the day was gray, and the sea was responsively gray; while the earth on the other side was torn and ragged, with people digging manure into the patches of broccoli, and gardening away as if it had been April instead of January.

There were shabby villas, with stone-pines and cypresses herding about the houses, and tatters of life-plant overhanging their shabby walls; there were stucco shanties which the men and women working in the fields would lurk in at nightfall. At places there was some cheerful boat building, and at one place there was a large macaroni manufactory, with far stretches of the product dangling in hanks and skeins from rows of trellises.

We passed through towns where women and children swarmed, working at doorways and playing in the dim, cold streets; from the balconies everywhere winter melons hung in nets, dozens and scores of them, such as you can  the Italian fruiterers' in New York, and will keep buying when once you know how good they are. In Naples they sell them by the slice in the street, the fruiterer carrying a board on his head with the slices arranged in an upright coronal like the rich, barbaric head-dress of some savage prince.

 Our train was slow and our car was foul, but nothing could keep us from arriving at Pompeii in very good spirits. The entrance to the dead city is gardened about with a cemeterial prettiness of evergreens; but, after you have bought your ticket and been assigned your guide, you pass through this decorative zone and find yourself in the first of streets where the past makes no such terms with the present.

Most of the places I re-entered through my recollection of them, but to this subjective experience there was added that of seeing much newer and vaster things than I remembered. That sad population of the victims of the disaster, restored to the semblance of life, or perhaps rather of death, in plaster casts taken from the moulds their decay had left in the hardening ashes, had much increased in the melancholy museum where one visits them the first thing within the city gates.

 The identity of each of the public edifices is easily attested to the archaeologist, but the generally intelligent, as the generally unintelligent, visitor must take the archaeologist's word for the fact. One temple is much like another in its stumps of columns and vague foundations and broken altars. Among the later discoveries certain of the public baths are in the best repair, both structurally and decoratively, and in these one could replace the antique life with the least wear and tear of the imagination. 

I could not tell which the several private houses were; but the guide-books can, and there I leave the specific knowledge of them; their names would say nothing to the reader if they said nothing to me. In Pompeii, where all the houses were rather small, some of the new ones were rather large, though not larger than a few of the older ones. Not more recognizably than these, they had been devoted to the varied uses known to advanced civilization in all ages: there were dwellings, and taverns and drinking-houses and eating-houses.

The pictures on the walls of the newly excavated houses are not strikingly better than those I had not forgotten; but of late it has been the purpose to leave as many of the ornaments and utensils in position as possible. The best are, as they ought to be, gathered into the National Museum at Naples, but those which remain impart a more living sense of the past than such wisely ordered accumulations; for it is the Pompeian paradox that in the image of death it can best recall life.

There is no Elevated or Subway at Pompeii, and even the lines of public chariots, if such they were, which left those ruts in the lava pavements seem to have been permanently suspended after the final destruction in the year 79.  We were not only very tired, but very hungry, and we asked our guide to take us back the shortest way. He acted upon it instantly, and we cut across the back yards and over the kitchen areas of several absent citizens on our way back.

Our guide was as good and true as it is in the nature of guides to be, but absolute goodness and truth are rather the attributes of American travellers; and you will not escape the small graft which the guides are so rigorously forbidden to practise.  Pompeii is no longer in the keeping of the Italian army; with the Italian instinct of decentralization the place has claimed the right of self-government, and now the guides are civilians, and not soldiers, as they were in my far day. They do not accept fees, but still they take them.

Our guide said that he had a brother-in-law who had the best restaurant outside the gate, where we could get luncheon for two francs.  As soon as we were in the hands of the runner for that restaurant the price augmented itself to two francs and a half; when we mounted to the threshold, lured on by the fascinating mystery of this increase, it became three francs, without wine. But as the waiter justly noted, in hovering about us with the cutlery and napery while he laid the table, a two-fifty luncheon was unworthy such lords as we.

When he began to bring on the delicious omelette, the admirable fish, the excellent cutlets, he made us observe that if we paid three francs we ought to eat a great deal; and there seemed reason in this; at any rate, we did so. The truth is, that luncheon was worth the money, and more; as for the Vesuvian wine, it had the rich red blood of the volcano in it, and it could not be bought in New York for half a franc the bottle, if at all; at thrice that sum in Naples it was not a third as good.

Afterward in the National Museum at Naples, where most of the precious Pompeian things, new and old, are heaped up, they still make but a poor show there beside the treasures of Herculaneum, where the excavation of a few streets and houses has yielded costlier and lovelier things than all the lengths and breadths of Pompeii. But not for this would I turn against Pompeii at the last moment, as it were, though my second visit had not aesthetically enriched me beyond my first.

I keep the vision of it under that gray January sky, with Vesuvius smokeless in the background, and the plan of the dead city, opener to the eye than ever it could have been in life, inscribed upon the broadly opened area of the gentle slopes within its gates. Whether one had not better known it dead than alive, one might not wish perhaps to say; but the place itself is curiously without pathos; Newport in ruins might not be touching; possibly all skeletons or even mummies are without pathos; and Pompeii is a skeleton, or at the most a mummy, of the past.

Seeing what antiquity so largely was, however, one might be not only resigned but cheerful in the effacement of any particular piece of it; and for a help to this at Pompeii I may advise the reader to take with him a certain little guide-book, written in English by a very courageous Italian, which I chanced to find in Naples.

Though it treats of the tragical facts with seriousness, it is not with equal gravity that one reads that sixteen years before the Vesuvian eruption "the region had been shaken by strong sismic movements, which induced Pompei inhabitants to forsake precipitately their habitations. But being the amazement up, they got one's home again as soon as the earth was quiet and all fear and sadness went off by memory."

Signs of the final disaster to follow were not wanting; the wells failed, the water-courses were crossed by currents of carbonic acid; "the domestic animals were also very sensible of the approaching of the scourge; they lost the habitual vivacity, and having the food in disgust, had from time to time to complain with mournful wailings, without justified reasons. . . . The sky became of a thick darkness, . . . interrupted only by flashes of light which the lava riverberated, by the bloody gliding of the thunderbolts, by the incandescence of enormous projectiles, thrown to an incommensurable highness. . . . Death surprised the charming town; houses and streets became the tombs of the unhappies hit by an atrocious torture."

The author's study of the life of Pompeii is notable for diction which, if there were logic in language, would be admirable English, for while yet in his mind it must have been "very choice Italian." He tells us that "Pompei's dwellings are surprising by their specific littleness," and explains that "Pompei inhabitants, for the habitudes of the climate could allow, lived almost always to the open sky," just as the Naples inhabitants do now.

"They got home only to rest a little, to fulfill life wants, to be protected by bad weather. They spent much time during the day in forum, temples, thermes, tennis-court, or intervened to public sports, religious functions and meetings. . . . Few houses only had windows. The sunlight and ventilation to the ancients was given through empty spaces in the roofs. . . . Hoofs knocked under the weight of materials thrown out by Vesuvius; it is undoubted, however, that roofs were provided with covers or supported terraces. In the middle of the roofs was cut an ouerture through which air and light brought their benefits to the underlaid ambients. . . . Proprietor disposed the locals according to his own delight. . . . So that, there were bed, bath, dining, talking and game rooms." In the peristyle "the ground was gardened, the area shared in flower beds, had narrow paths; herbs, flowers, shrubs were put with art well in order on flower beds, delighted from time to time by statues of various subjects," as may be noted in the actual restorations of some of the Pompeian houses.

As for their spiritual life, "Pompeian's religion, like by Roman people, was the Paganism. Deities were worshipped in the temples with prayers, sagrifices, vows, and festivities. . . . Banquets to the Deity were joined to prayers. In fact, dining tables were dressed near the altars, and all around them on dining beds, tricli-nari, placed Divinities statues as these were assembled to own account to the joyous banquest." Auspices or auguries "gave interpretation to thunders, lightnings, winds, rain crashes, comets, or to bird songs and flights. . . . Horuspices inquired the divine will on the animal bowels, sacrificed to the altar; they took out further indications by fleshes and bowels flames when burnt on the altar."

An important feature of Pompeian social life was the bath, which "was one of the hospitality duty, and very often required in several religious functions. . . . Large and colossal edifices were quite furnished with all the necessary for care and sport. Besides localities for all kind of bath--cold, warm, steam bath--didn't want parks, alleys, and porticos in order to walk; lists rings for gymnastic exercises, conversation and reading rooms, localities for theatrical representations, swimming stations, localities for scientific disquisitions, moral and religious teachings. The most splendid art works adorned the ambient."

When we pass to the popular amusements we are presented with the materials of pictures vividly realized in The Last Days of Pompeii [ed. the opera], but somewhat faded since.

"In the beginning gladiators' rank was made by condemned to death slaves and war prisoners. Later also thoughtless young men, who had never learned an advantageous trade, became gladiators." In the arena they engaged in sham fights till the spectators demanded blood. Then, "sometimes one provided one's self nets for wrapping up the adversary, who, hit by a trident much, frequently die. When the gladiator was deadly wounded, forsaking the arm, struck down and stretching the index, asked the people grace of life. The spectators decided up his destiny, turning the thumb to the breast, or toward the ground. The thumb turned toward the ground was the unlucky's death doom, and he had without fail the throat cut off."

Such, dimly but unmistakably seen through our Italian author's well-reasoned English, were the ancient Pompeians; and, upon the whole, the visitor to their city could not wish them back in it. I preferred even those modern Pompeians who followed us so molestively to the train with bargains in postal-cards and coral. They are very alert, the modern Pompeians, to catch the note of national character, and I saw one of them pursuing an elderly American with a spread of hat-pins, primarily two francs each, and with the appeal, evidently studied from some fair American girl: "Buy it, Poppa! Six for one franc. Oh, Poppa, buy it!"


Some Books about Pompeii





This link is to an Italian company that makes reproduction Pompeian jewelry, authorized by Italian museums.