Pompeii

Our recent blog posts on the Spinalonga island off the Greek coast got me thinking about other deserted cities that are tourist destinations. Undoubtedly the most famous of these is Pompeii, in southern Italy. After its burial under the ashes of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, the city was not properly rediscovered until 1748. As soon as excavations started Pompeii became a tourist site, and it currently attracts around 2.6 million visitors every year. The main appeal of the city is seeing a world frozen in time, as everything is so perfectly preserved. What can we learn from this fascination with the permanent and enduring, and how does this interest in the city reflect on changing views of what is worth remembering, over time?
The appeal of Pompeii is in the quotidien, ‘the loaves of bread and hair pins’ as cultural historians Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul put it. [1]  But it is precisely its ordinariness that makes it so extraordinary today. Normally cities disappear gradually, they crumble away and then they are gone. Pompeii is the opposite of that, and the fact that it has been naturally preserved for so long makes it now all the more important not to allow any type of decay to impact on it. When the House of Gladiators collapsed in 2010, the general response was that Italy as a nation had failed to protect the city. [2]The city is no longer seen as a living, developing thing, but instead as something that must be preserved exactly as it was, forever.
This is directly at odds with how tourism to Pompeii has developed. Soon after the initial excavations started in the mid-18th century, Pompeii became established as part of the Grand Tour; aristocratic gentlemen from England visited the city on their longer journeys across Europe. The Tour was supposed to give the young men a solid grounding in culture, and an acquaintance with classical culture was part of that. When rail travel made tourism accessible the middle-classes were also able to visit Pompeii, and its popularity has not flagged since. It is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Italy today. The modern town of Pompei (with one ‘i’) was founded in 1891 and now provides the train station and hotels for all the visitors. The site is struggling with balancing its need for preservation with the increasing number of tourists, and the income that they bring. Large parts of the city which had been open to tourists in the 1960s, have since been closed off. At the same time a restaurant and cafe have now been constructed in the centre of the town, to cater for  the tourists. Previously, there were no amenities in the old city. So while the social function of Pompeii lies precisely in its status as unchanging city, the fact of its popularity has forced it to adapt, both for commercial and archaeological reasons. Additionally, some of the wall paintings, such as the one of the God of Fertility Priapus, are locked away from public view or put on display, depending on the morals of the age.
So when we visit Pompeii and believe ourselves to experience what it was like to live in a Roman city, we must remind ourselves that this is a myth. The city is as much a product of our own times as it is of the Pax Romana. Its very existence today is a reflection of what we value as history, what we think of as important to preserve, and of the apparent belief that a city should be kept static. The derelict, abandoned city is an empty canvas on which beliefs can be projected.

[1] Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from its Rediscovery to Today, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 2.
[2]  See ‘House of the Gladiators collapses in Pompeii’ BBC News, accessed 5/8/15 http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-11704720

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