The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse,
Resurrection is the title of a current exhibition at the Getty Villa
(September 12, 2012-January 7, 2013). It is based on a very
popular novel by the Victorian writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton.
Bulwer was a true son of his age. The Victorian aesthetic, seen in
its interior design, was heavy and crowded. So were Bulwer's
sentences. They are the opposite of today's stripped, spare style.
He also subscribed to Victorian ideals of morality. Rather than a
tragedy of epic proportion, Bulwer saw the destruction of Pompeii
as a judgment of God on the people for their sins and debauchery.
The Victorian view of the eruption as divine punishment for
Pompeii's sins has been echoed in recent years by the conservative
view of Hurricane Katrina as punishment for the sins of New
Orleans, Louisiana or the U.S. as a whole.
God has said that he will judge all of us at the "last day." Those of
us who are Christians are not to judge others but to leave that
judgment to God, who said, "'Judgement is mine. I will repay,'"
Bulwer tells the tale of Glaucus, a Greek living in Pompeii. He is in
love with the beautiful Ione. His friend Clodius encourages him to
marry someone with more money, but Glaucus is undeterred.
Ione and her brother have been adopted by Arbaces, a priest of an
Egyptian mystery religion dedicated to Isis. Ione's brother
complains to Arbaces that the priests of Isis are ignorant, dull and
sensual. Arbaces flatters him, while he seeks to turn Ione against
Arbaces wants Ione for himself. In fact, Glaucus joins with her
brother to rescue her from Arbaces after being warned by Nydia, a
blind slave who weaves flowers.
A series of earthquakes shake Pompeii as Ione and Glaucus plan
to marry. Ione's brother is drawn to the Christian faith. Christians
are considered to be atheists by the Pompeiians, because they
refused to worship the Roman gods. When Ione's brother is
killed, Glaucus is accused of the murder and sentenced to be fed to
Pompeii is plunged into darkness when the mountain erupts, but the
blind Nydia, accustomed to walking the streets in darkness, leads
the lovers to safety at the shore.
Glaucus and Nydia (1867), by the painter Lawrence Alma Tadema (above). Novelist
Edward Bulwer-Lytton (top).
Glaucus, Ione and Nydia escape by sea, by Paul Falconer Poole, 1860.