The New Realism: Pompeii’s Living Dead

By Eugene Dwyer

Plaster casts of the Pompeian victims, first made by Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1863, have become world famous through post cards, documentary films, and now traveling exhibitions.

Direct exposure to the casts, whether one experiences them in Pompeii or in a museum setting, can be very moving or it can be unaffecting, depending upon the circumstances and expectations brought to the experience by the visitor. To stumble upon a cast unexpectedly in a dimly lighted vault can be a memorable experience.

Fiorelli’s own initial discovery of victims, made by freeing his newly made plasters of the surrounding earth, came as such a shock that he claimed to have “stolen from death” the bodies that had been concealed for more than eighteen hundred years.

In fact, Fiorelli’s process made it possible to see the faces and the helpless gestures of the victims at the very moment they were overcome by the volcano. No one before Fiorelli had seen ancient Romans as “living persons.” Portrait sculpture and ideal or mythological sculpture and painting had been the basis of most people’s acquaintance with the ancients, leading to exalted notions of the beauty of the ancients.

The experience of human remains was limited to skeletons, gruesome but insufficient to contradict the supposed veracity of the works of art. Now it was apparent that the Pompeians had been heavily clothed, mostly well shod, and that they strikingly resembled contemporary inhabitants of the zone. Most noticeably, they appeared to contradict the images handed down in ancient art.

A week after his initial discovery, Fiorelli invited his distinguished colleague, Luigi Settembrini, to Pompeii to view the casts. After a moving visit, Settembrini wrote: “It is impossible to see these three disfigured bodies and not to feel moved – especially the girl with that skull and that body of hers who, being less indistinct than the others, appears to have such grace, that it breaks your heart. They have been dead for eighteen centuries, but they are human beings who are seen in their agony.

“There is nothing of art or of beauty, only bones, the remains of their flesh and their clothing mixed with the plaster. It is the pain of death which has conquered the body and the figure. I looked at the confused mass, I heard the shrill cry of the mother, and I saw her fall and struggle as she died. How many more human beings perished in the same torments and worse!”

“Until now have been discovered, temples, houses, walls, paintings, writings, sculptures, vases, tools, implements, bones, and other objects that roused the curiosity of cultured persons, artists, and archaeologists. But now you, my friend Fiorelli, have discovered human pain, and whoever is human can feel it.”

Where Fiorelli, the scientist, attended to the antiquarian details—the coiffeur, the clothing, the pathology—of the victims, Settembrini, the humanist, recoiled at the evidence of their suffering. Exhibition of the bodies at Pompeii made it possible for viewers to respond individually, and few visitors to Pompeii who recorded their impressions during the late nineteenth century failed to mention a visit to the morgue-like museum.

A growing industry of commercial photography catered to the tourist market, culminating in the picture post cards introduced during the last decade of the century. By then Fiorelli’s casts had become iconic.

Eugene Dwyer, author of Pompeii’s Living Statues: Ancient Roman Lives Stolen from Death, was born in Buffalo and attended Frontier Central High School, Harvard College, and the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. After living in Italy for three years, he completed his doctoral dissertation on the use of sculpture in the houses of Pompeii and began teaching the history of art at Kenyon College, where he is currently Professor.

IMAGE: Brogi 5579. Victim No. 7, in museum case. From the author’s own collection.

Congratulations to Eugene M, Linda C, and Lynne Z.  A copy of this book will soon be on its way to you!

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  1. says

    I find the plaster casts *so* chilling — the comments by Fiorelli & Settembrini make me shiver. When younger, I found the casts fascinating but now they make me too … sad? moved? … to want to observe them too closely.

  2. says

    The photos alone are striking, but seeing these casts in person was like nothing I’d ever experienced. I really want to visit Pompeii again, and I’m looking forward to reading this book.

  3. says

    I have always been interested in Pompeii and completely fascinated by the bodies that were found preserved in ash…forever frozen in time. How can a person not feel that person’s final moments or, at least, get a sense of it. I know this book will be a fantastic read. Thanks for the giveaway!

  4. says

    I’ve always been fascinated by Pompeii, ever since I saw my brother’s science book with pictures of the casts. The idea of finding a society frozen in time brings out a combination of curiosity, fascination, morbidness and sadness.

  5. says

    What a wonderful post. I am fascinated by the lives of people of the past, and they are so often remote and unknowable. What a strange death the people of Pompeii suffered, and what a strange gift they left behind.

  6. Laura S says

    Ah! I would love a chance to have this one. I found myself fascinated with the subject after reading the novel “Pompeii” by Robert Harris, the letter by Pliny the Younger and after my mom (who will no doubt be making her own comment soon) visited and brought back photos. It just had to be an absolutely horrifying experience.

  7. Linda Chester says

    Impressive website. Fiorelli’s work is evidently finally being given the treatment it deserves. Would love to have the opportunity to own this book.

  8. says

    The plaster cast that most affected me is the man sitting up with his head in his hands as though grieving for his family and his impending death … I call him,’ The Mourning Man”. Another grand site to visit is Herculaneum – much smaller than Pompeii but in a far better state of preservation. As an amchair archaeologist, it would be my grand pleasure to own this tome.

  9. says

    Question for Mr. Dwyer: During your research did you have a chance to interview Professo Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, the chief archaeologist for the Vesuvio area? If so, what did you think of the “efforts” to preserve/expand Pompeii?

  10. says

    Great topic. Funny thing is, that for all their fame among ordinary tourists, the casts fall through the cracks (so to speak) when approaching Pompeii via academia. Among art historians, they go virtually unmentioned, shunned as a gruesome sideshow.

  11. Mary Minshall says

    I saw the casts of the bodies of the victims when I first visited Pompeii in 1955 and again in 1981. As one who did not really like the Romans very much from the bad press they mostly gave themselves, seeing the bodies gave me a new perspective on these people whose empire lasted 400 years in the West and over 1000 in the East. They were human beings, both master and slave, after all.

  12. Lindsey says

    I was supposed to visit Pompeii for Spring Break, but my school canceled the trip because of 9/11. I’ve always thought Pompeii was fascinating and hope I get the chance to go there after all one day.

  13. says

    Lydia said it well, vivid. We are exposed to so many incarnations of Romans thanks to TV and film, but we know that those are actors, they aren’t real. The casts make them real, they were people, with lives, hopes, dreams, problems, much like us.

  14. John B. says

    This is a subject that has fascinated both my wife and I for many years. I know my wife mentioned she used to sit in the library and pour over books on the plaster casts and the city as it was unearthed. The incredible tiles and wall painting that are still being unearthed are amazing. We hope to some day travel there and see it for ourselves. I am certain nothing can compare to seeing everything first hand.
    Is there currently an exhibit traveling around the U. S. or Canada or will there be one in the next few years?

  15. says

    My interest in and fascination with Pompeii is unbounded. I have read endlessly about the eruption of 79 A.D. in English and in Latin, and I have many books on the subject. This one would be a very welcome addition.

  16. says

    I’ve always been fascinated by both the Pompeian remains and the bog bodies — the capturing of a human being in place and time like this somehow bridges the gap between past and present in a more immediate and intimate way than reading histories or viewing artwork or artifacts from the time period.

  17. Lynne Zielinski says

    If you ever plan on visiting Pompeii or her little sister, Herculaneum, better start planning now; there’s a good possibility that all will be gone, either from another Vesuvian burp or – more likely – all will be crumbled dust. Preserved for over 1800 yrs under layers of protective ash and tufa, the sun, the moisture, pigeons, wild dogs and weeds are quickly eroding these wonder-full sites. I am so glad authors are still giving us more information on these ancient cities and their people. Sure hope I win this one!

  18. Sheri Knauth says

    Why am I so attracted to death, doom, destruction and books like this one? I don’t know but I’m sure to enjoy every page if I win this one.

  19. says

    Would love to see Pompeii (and Herculaneum). The National Gallery of Art’s Pompeii show last year was wonderful–it focused on the living Pompeii; there was relatively little about the aftermath. Thanks for the giveaway!

  20. MIchelle says

    Please enter me! I’m planning to go to Pompeii this coming year to assist with the food & drink archaeology project. I’ll be reading all I can about it between now and then. I’ll never forget seeing a documentary on these casts when I was just a kid. Remarkable and sorrowful.

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