From the Ashes
What plaster casts from Pompeii tell us about death...and life.
Sometime during the late summer, or perhaps the early fall, of the year 79 C.E., Mount Vesuvius erupted near Naples. The result was instant death for the people, plants, and animals in the Roman town of Pompeii, which is about five miles from Mount Vesuvius. A Volcanologist named Giuseppe Mastrolorenzo recently (2010) published a definitive study of death in Pompeii. The living things, he concluded, died from the intense heat of the volcanic blast. Basically, they were flash fried. In one of the multiple pyroclastic surges produced by the eruption, "temperatures outdoors — and indoors,” wrote Mastrolorenza, “rose up to 570°F and more, enough to kill hundreds of people in a fraction of a second."
In the 1860s, something else incredible happened at Pompeii. A man named Giuseppe Fiorelli was named director of excavations at the site. Ingrid D. Rowland writes about Fiorelli in her new book, From Pompeii: The Afterlife of a Roman Town (Harvard University Press, 2014). Fiorelli, Rowland writes, “was one of the first archeologists to excavate stratigraphically, that is, by removing layers of earth from the top down.” With this method of archeology, Fiorelli and his team began to notice “oddly shaped bubbles” in the layers of ash. Fiorelli came up with an ingenious idea. He shot liquid plaster down into those bubbles. When the plaster hardened, the shapes could be dug out from the earth and ash. The bubbles, it turned out, were the molds created in the ash from the objects and physical bodies (people, animals) that had been covered in the ash after the eruption, and which had then decomposed. The bubbles didn’t collapse, since the ash had hardened over the centuries. As Rowland puts it, “the organic remains of the town survived as hollow voids within the pumice.”
Fiorelli called these plaster casts “calchi” (Rowland names them “plaster ghosts”), which means “plasters” in Italian. These calchi include, “the famous dog; an old man in his underwear wearily shielding his face as he lies down for eternity, too weak to move any farther; a couple embracing as the lapilli bury them.”
Some of these calchi can be seen right now in Philadelphia (through April 27) at the Franklin Institute’s “One Day in Pompeii” exhibit. The Franklin Institute exhibit includes “over 150 precious artifacts on loan from the unparalleled collection of the Naples National Archaeological Museum in Italy, including wall-sized frescos, marble and bronze sculptures, jewelry, [and] ancient Roman coins.” But none of these objects have the same impact as the calchi. Looking at these plaster casts of human beings in their moment of death, one thinks not so much of dead and dying human beings, but of death itself. I want to say that the calchi “are” death. But how can a plaster cast of a void within pumice “be” death? Maybe for the very reason that the calchi are voids, voids that human beings inhabited exactly at the moment they met death. The calchi are not bodies. They are the empty spaces where bodies used to be. They are the negation left over from the instant of death.
Because of the calchi, it is impossible to think about Pompeii as a normal ruin. Ruins are fragments of the past that still exist in the present. They are beautiful and melancholy for that reason. Time is a little bit mixed up in a ruin. A half-destroyed abbey in the European countryside is a tantalizing glimpse into a piece of lost time. The ruin is beautiful partly because it is falling apart. A proper ruin must, therefore, show its ruined character. It looks old. It has a patina. In its perfect form, a ruin has been partially reclaimed by nature. Plants and trees grow from crevices in the old stones. Ruins are between. Ruins are signposts of the netherworld. Death is not fully present in a ruin, but it lurks just around the corner. Everything about a ruin reminds one — indistinctly but indubitably — of the passing away of all things.
The calchi are not subtle reminders of death. They are the immediate presence of death. The flash frying and burying of Pompeii did something strange and incredible. It created not a ruin, but a time warp. Pompeii is not a fragment of lost time. It is lost time thrust into the present, wholesale. This is disconcerting, to say the least. There is no buffer in Pompeii, no visible signal of decay as there is in the normal ruin. Of course, now that Pompeii has been excavated, the site is becoming a normal ruin. It is falling into decay. But not the calchi, and that is why the calchi are so uncanny. The calchi aren’t ruins and they never can be. The calchi are like snapshots of death. For that reason, they make the death of Pompeii as palpable and present to us now as it was two thousand years ago.
I walked the streets of Pompeii, once. This was about twenty years ago. It was a gloomy day, gray and drizzly. I’d spent the morning in Naples, getting lost in one of the tangles of winding streets, looking for a place to get breakfast. There was a strike at the time and the garbage had been piling up all over the city for days, maybe weeks. It was not beautiful. The smell was incredible. But I don’t blame Naples for that. I feel a special fondness for the place, not in spite of the unforgettable garbage but, perhaps, because of it. I’d spent the previous day on a lonely boat from Sicily to Naples. I remember feeling depressed. I believe, now, that I was scared of what I would find in Pompeii. I’d always heard about the bodies, the calchi preserved in their death throes. I wanted to see those bodies. And I very much did not want to see those bodies. It is the same feeling that I have about the camps of the Third Reich. I must see them. And I cannot see them.
So, I went to Pompeii in dread. Entering, the city bore an air of neglect. I wasn’t struck by the perfect preservation, Pompeii captured in its exact condition two thousand years ago. I was struck by the fact that the city was finally dying. Excavating the city pulled it back into the flow of time again. In another situation, I might have felt pity for the place. It is a sad heap of stones falling apart in the open air. But my fear of the bodies, my fear of what I might find in any of the buildings that I entered made me angry and disappointed. I felt not pity but disgust. I felt that the city of Pompeii was wretched. I wanted it to be covered up again. In the rain, the streets and buildings of the ancient place seemed covered in a layer of wet shame.
When I finally saw one of the calchi, it was lying on a concrete floor behind a chain-link fence. It seemed like it had been cast aside there. It looked like something you might find in a closet at an art school, something used as a model for a drawing class, or a failed attempt by a student just learning how to sculpt. I never saw the famous dog, twisted and contorted in his moment of death. I stopped looking. I wandered back out of the city and I don’t think I’ll ever go back.
The most intriguing chapter of Ingrid Rowland’s From Pompeii tells a story of Roberto Rossellini and Ingrid Bergman. Bergman had just seen Rossellini’s films Open City and Paisan. This is the early 1950s. She wrote a note to Rossellini, saying, “If you need a Swedish actress who speaks English very well, who has not forgotten her German, who is not very understandable in French, and who in Italian knows only ‘ti amo’, I am ready to come and make a film with you.” Not long after sending the note, Bergman was pregnant with Rossellini’s child.
In 1953, they made a film together called Journey to Italy (Viaggio in Italia). It is a story of a British couple (Ingrid Bergman as the wife, George Saunders as the husband) who travel to Italy while their marriage is falling apart. Nothing much happens in the movie, plot-wise. It revolves, as Rowland puts it, around “atmosphere rather than action.” But as the couple drifts further apart, Bergman’s character begins exploring the remnants of Italy’s past. She visits the National Archeological Museum in Naples, where she is struck by the living presence of the ancient statues to be found there. She goes to a Temple of Apollo and to the Fontanelle Cemetery, which Rowland calls, “one of the strangest places in Naples.” A kind of cult of the dead grew up around Fontanelle Cemetery in the 17th century. Neapolitans became obsessed with praying for the souls in Purgatory. They wanted to be as close as possible to the dead people they were praying for. There was a mass grave for plague victims at Fontanelle Cemetery. “People went into the old quarry,” Rowland writes, “picked out a skull, and began to lavish affection on it, renaming it, decorating it, caressing it, bringing it gifts, asking it to intercede with God, the Madonna, Jesus, and the saints.”
Bergman’s character visits all of these places with a growing sense of foreboding. Finally, she and her husband are taken to Pompeii by an Italian friend. He wants to show them the process by which calchi are actually being produced — the squirting of liquid plaster into the bubbles, the unearthing of dead bodies in plaster form. For this scene, Rossellini actually reenacts the whole process of making a calcho. As the bodies of a man and woman are disinterred, Bergman becomes mentally and physically overwhelmed. She and her husband leave Pompeii and then later get trapped in a religious precession as they continue to discuss their impending divorce. They fight. Bergman’s character is swept up in a crowd and dragged off down the street. She yells out to her husband, who suddenly rushes to her. “When they finally find their way back together again and embrace,” Rowland writes, “ it is because they have suddenly truly seen each other; their boredom and irritation have been lifted away and carried off by the pageant.”
But it isn’t just the pageantry that has opened their eyes. Rowland quotes from an interview with Rossellini and Bergman’s daughter, Isabella Rossellini, who described the final scene of Journey to Italy. Isabella Rossellini explains:
All of a sudden it isn’t the Italy of tourism, the strength of Italy is its history, that under our feet, where we walk, there are millions of people buried, literally buried, some of them mummified. And that consciousness is what’s so strong in Journey to Italy… At the end of the film, it ends with this miracle of the couple realizing how lost people are in this universe, and they are separated by a crowd, and in that moment of panic they find each other and they embrace.
Isabella Rossellini is onto something here. But the truth she’s sniffed out is even more extreme than she realizes. The real journey in Journey to Italy is a journey toward death. Ingrid Bergman’s character is confronted by death as soon as she comes to Italy. Death comes toward her from afar. First, death comes in the form of ancient statues in the museum. Then it comes in the form of a funeral procession that passes in front of her car. Death comes again in the form of the cult of death, and the people who live among the skulls and skeletons of the dead at Fontanelle Cemetery. Finally, death comes out of the ground, in the penultimate scene of the movie, as the calchi.
After Bergman’s character and her husband see the calchi, something unexpected happens. The estranged lovers are able to see one another again. Their eyes are opened. Death, in the final scene of the movie, is transformed into love. This is not a romantic love. It isn’t born of passion or high feelings. It is a love between two people who have come to hate one another, and who have shared a shocking encounter with death. The implication of the final scenes of Journey to Italy is, therefore, that genuine love has something to do with death or that death makes it possible. Love, in Journey to Italy, does not happen because two people are attracted to one another or find they have similar interests. Love happens because two people who are already married, and antagonistic toward one another, confront the full reality of death. Death opens the door to love. The calchi open the door to love. There is something, Roberto Rossellini suggests with his movie, about confronting the immediacy of death that makes a person, paradoxically, more alive. The person who is shocked into life by death is capable of love, since love, as Rossellini portrays it, is not a feeling so much as a commitment, a commitment to another human being made under the eyes of death.
The calchi, surprisingly and finally, are not only emblems of death; they are the promise of love. • 31 March 2014
Morgan Meis has a PhD in Philosophy and is a founding member of Flux Factory, an arts collective in New York. He has written for n+1, The Believer, Harper’s Magazine, and The Virginia Quarterly Review. He won the Whiting Award in 2013. Morgan is also an editor at 3 Quarks Daily, and a winner of a Creative Capital | Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant. A book of Morgan's selected essays can be found here. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Photo courtesy of the Soprintendenza Speciale per I Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompeii