Friday, March 11, 2011

Ghosts of Vesuvius

Last fall I attended an LA Philharmonic performance of a large work for chorus and orchestra - Graffiti by composer Magnus Lindberg.  The interesting text was created from inscriptions discovered on walls of the buried Roman city of Pompeii.  These have remained unchanged since molten lava engulfed the city way back in A.D.79.

Later I saw Ghosts of Vesuvius by Charles Pellegrino on a stack of Leslie's books.  I thought this might be a good way to learn more about the graffiti of Pompeii.  I just finished the book.  I was wrong.

I should have paid more attention to the subtitle of Ghosts of Vesuvius:
A new look at the last days of Pompeii, how towers fall, and other strange connections.
Ghosts of Vesuvius did tell me just a wee bit more about graffiti in the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum.  Plus there was a lot of other fascinating information about Roman life, history, customs and technology.   I learned, for example, that in Rome there were eight-story apartment buildings with plate glass windows and sprinkler systems.  Roman inventors were working on steam-powered ships. And sunken Roman galleys have been found in places like Brazil and Venezuela - but scientists have not been allowed to study them closely because some people don't want Christopher Columbus challenged as discoverer of the New World.  Lots of stuff like that.

Clearly Mr. Pellegrino knows a good deal about many subjects.  Among the more surprising discourses I found in this book were:
  • how volcanos may have fostered the first life on earth, 
  • the history of the universe, starting now and working backwards to the very beginning,
  • how the catastrophic Vesuvian explosion affected early (and probably current) Christian thinking about eschatology and the apocalypse,
  • the sinking of the Titanic, which the author had previously studied up close in a deep-sea submarine and then written a book about.
The last relates to one of the celebrity endorsements on the back cover:
"Very interesting and compelling reading.  A killer.  Makes me want to do a movie about Pompeii." -- James Cameron, award-winning producer and director who has optioned screen rights to Ghosts of Vesuvius.
No, James Cameron is not crazy.  Ghosts of Vesuvius would make a great blockbuster movie very much in the mold of his movie Titanic.  That's because of two riveting sections of storytelling in which Pellegrino relates, in minute by minute detail, two horrendous events of sudden human immolation.

One, of course, was the explosion of Vesuvius, where humans caught in the hot lava were completely vaporized in a fraction of a second.  But he also finds personal stories.  Using scrolls encased in lava - on which the burnt ink can now be distinguished from burnt parchment through the miracle of Photoshop - we learn the story of a freed Roman slave girl named Justa who was trying to avoid being returned to slavery by conniving lawyers. 

The other was the collapse of the World Trade Center towers on September 11, 2001.  Pellegrino was one of the scientists who, in the months after the attack, studied how the towers fell.  He has documented some of the surprising twists of horror and luck endured by the victims of that attack.

In both stories there are moments where complete destruction is found side by side with items that have barely been touched.  Tables set for upcoming meals remain just as they were while only a few feet away walls crumbled and fell.  People inexplicably survive the massive explosions, comparable in strength to nuclear bombs, by accidentally finding themselves inside "shock cocoons": spots where some trick of the crumbling architecture and explosive physics offers a shell of protection from certain death. Had these individuals been standing a few feet away, death would have been certain.

Ultimately, Ghosts of Vesuvius is about sudden destruction: a huge asteroid carving out the Yucatan in the Gulf of Mexico destroying the dinosaurs; a volcano in 1628 B.C. obliterating the Minoan civilization and giving us our legend of Atlantis; the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki; an earthquake and its tsunami.  In each of these and many other cases, there was some morning, probably a beautiful morning, when life simply came completely to a halt.  There was no warning whatsoever.

And when such catastrophe does happen again there will probably be no way to prevent it.  A few lucky people might survive.  The rest of us need to enjoy each beautiful morning as it happens.

You can visit the ruins of Pompeii via Google Street View.

Here's an Italian website devoted to the excavations and another at the Field Museum.

Immolation Tags: . . . . . .


Kraig Grady said...

My biggest fear would be to have to listen to what Cameron might conceive as "Roman Music"

Pasadena Adjacent said...

"can now be distinguished from burnt parchment through the miracle of Photoshop"

I'll have to remember that.

Anonymous said...

I am about 2/3 the way through this fascinating book and am amazed at how much I have taken to the material. I read (and reviewed) Last Train From Hiroshima, but wasn't prepared for the breadth Pellegrino puts forth here.

A genuinely thought provoking book.