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Saturday Volcano Art: John Martin, ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (c.1821) 6 June 2009

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John Martin, The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum (c.1821), detailFrom the moment of their recovery in the mid-eighteenth century, the buried cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum became the centre not only of an archaeological but a moral narrative. These flourishing centres of Roman life – exemplars of a great civilization at the height of its power – could do nothing to protect themselves against the natural calamity that destroyed them. Johann Joachim Winckelmann reflected in his Critical Account of the Situation and Destruction by the First Eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabia (1764) that the remains of these cities ‘afford the most striking moral reflections’, showing ‘that Empires, however firmly founded, and that cities, however embellished, are like man, subject to mortality, and liable to dissolution’ (pp. iv-v).

For some the destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum afforded matter not only for moral reflection, but for moral judgement: these ancient centres of luxury, decadence, arrogance, paganism and vice had been swept away, and perhaps it was a case of serve them right. Such views became particularly prominent during the nineteenth century, when Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s phenomenally popular novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) described the city as ‘the miniature of the civilization of that age’, containing within its walls ‘a specimen which every gift which luxury offered to power … in the energy yet corruption, in the refinement yet the vice, of its people, you beheld a model of the whole empire’ (p. 17). The destruction of the Roman cities, argued the American writer Nathaniel Hazeltine Carter in 1827, was not merely a fluke of nature but an act of well-deserved divine retribution: ‘Sodom and Gomorrah, when like Herculaneum and Pompeii, they were deluged in fire and overwhelmed in ruin, could not have sunk to greater depths of depravity, or have presented vice under more brutal and disgusting forms’ (Letters From Europe, vol. II, p. 232). Both Pompeii and Herculaneum, observed John Kennedy in his Volcanoes: Their History, Phenomena, and Causes (1852), ‘were prosperous and luxurious. The excavations of Pompeii reveal Roman life in all its grandeur and meanness, and, alas! in all its frivolity and licentiousness’ (p. 66). Kennedy’s book, it should be pointed out, was published by the Religious Tract Society, and for some religious writers the lesson taught by the fate of the Roman cities was clear. In 1872 the British Baptist preacher Charles H. Spurgeon, perhaps the most celebrated and influential Christian preacher of modern times, paid a visit to Pompeii and referred to it in a subsequent sermon, ‘Voices from Pompeii’, as ‘that fair abode of luxury and vice’. Pompeii is held up, not only as an instance of the vulnerability of man to natural catastrophe but of the inevitability of divine judgement upon immorality, luxury and vice.

John Martin, 'The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum' (c.1821)
John Martin, ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’ (c. 1821).

Against this background, the attraction which the AD79 eruption of Vesuvius held for the English painter John Martin (1789-1854) needs little further explanation. Martin specialized in huge canvases depicting vast panoramas of cataclysmic, often Biblical, events: The Seventh Plague of Egypt (1823), The Eve of the Deluge (1840), The Great Day of His Wrath (1851-3), The Destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (1852), The Last Judgement (1853). Around 1821 Martin painted ‘The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum’, which is reproduced above (the original is in the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester).

The picture shows the town of Herculaneum on the right, fronting the Bay of Naples, the turbulent waters of which seem to rush in from the left – but topographical accuracy is not Martin’s concern, any more than is the accurate depiction of volcanic phenomena. Instead he shows a sweeping vista of all-encompassing catastrophe, in which the cowering figures in the foreground are dwarfed by the huge destructive forces of nature that surround and envelop them. The entire landscape is swept by fire and brimstone, thick smoke and choking ash. Soldiers find their glittering armour and splendid shields useless against the eruption; wealthy citizens who have attempted to rescue their riches fall back, dead or dying, upon their piles of now worthless treasures; in the bay below splendid merchantmen are shattered and overwhelmed by the rushing waves unleashed by the eruption, while across the bay the once rich and splendid town of Herculaneum is buried by ash amid the volcano’s baleful glare. There is no one focus to the picture – an ambiguity which emphasizes the universalism of this cataclysm. A local volcanic eruption is transformed by Martin’s vision into an image of the end of the world, a last judgement upon the vanity, hubris and decadence of man.

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References & further reading

– Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii (1834; 2 vols., New York: Harper & Bros., 1835)
– Nathaniel Hazeltine Carter, Letters from Europe: Comprising the Journal of a Tour through Ireland, England, Scotland, France, Italy, and Switzerland, in the Years 1825, ’26, and ’27 (2 vols., New York: G. & C. Carvill, 1827)
– Judith Harris, Pompeii Awakened (London: I. B. Tauris, 2007)
– John Kennedy, Volcanoes: Their History, Phenomena, and Causes (London: Religious Tract Society, 1852)
– Johann Joachim Winckelmann, Critical Account of the Situation and Destruction by the First Eruptions of Mount Vesuvius, of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabia (1764; English translation, London, 1771)

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