Representations of Pompeii and Herculaneum Over Time
Since their initial discovery the cities of Vesuvius have captured the imagination of millions of people around the world. The back drop to numerous television programs, movies, novels, songs and even rock concerts, Pompeii and Herculaneum have remained a constant feature in popular culture.
Early Representations of Pompeii
Visited by numerous famous people throughout the centuries, perhaps one of Pompeii's earliest notable tourist, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, explored the city in 1769. It has been said that his opera, The Magic Flute, which was set in ancient Egypt, was inspired by his time visiting Pompeii and witnessing the remains of the Temple of Isis, one of the first buildings excavated at the site. Open to visitors for the next century, in 1828 Russian painter, Karl Bryullov, journeyed to the famous remains in the hope of inspiration. What resulted from this visit was Bryullov's most famous work, entitled The Last Day of Pompeii.
Capturing the horror, confusion and terror of the event, Bryullov's painting inspired other works of literature that focused on Pompeii, the eruption and its aftermath. Edward Bulwer-Lytton's 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompeii, is one of these works inspired by the painting. The novel, which culminated with the eruption of Mt Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii, paints first century Roman life as decadent, sinful and ready for its end. Morality, or the decline of it, was a concern in Bulwer-Lytton's novel, perhaps reflecting his own concerns at the time. The Last Days of Pompeii was hugely popular both at the time of its publication and for many decades after.
For more information on the initial representation of Pompeii and Herculaneum in the 18th and 19th centuries see the websites, articles and books listed below.
Pompeii in Pop Culture: TV and Film
Pompeii and Herculaneum have long been a source of inspiration for filmmakers, artists and musicians alike. Countless documentaries, films and television series have featured these unique sites and have sought to dramatise their last fateful last hours in 79AD. Ranging from academic documentaries such as Mary Beard’s Pompeii: Life and Death (2003) to the latest Hollywood Blockbuster Pompeii (2014), the cities of Vesuvius have seen it all, having even recently featured in an episode of The Simpsons. Below you will find a list of some of the many ways in which Pompeii has been represented in popular culture.
- The BBC dramatised documentary Pompeii the Last Day (2003) recreates the eruption of Mt Vesuvius and the destruction of Pompeii.
- National Geographic Documentary The Real Pompeii (2013) (https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x3qo5z2)
- The BBC documentary Pompeii: Life and Death with Mary Beard (2015) provides unprecedented behind-the-scenes access to the Great Pompeii Project.
- Channel 5 production Pompeii Live (2006) which features a live archaeological dig at Pompeii and Herculaneum.
- The BBC documentary Life and Death in Herculaneum (2013). This documentary is narrated by the renowned Professor Wallace-Hadrill and provides a detailed study of the city of Herculaneum.
- Pompeii (2014). Click here to watch the official movie trailer.
- Rojas, A., (2014), "Interview with Paul W.S. Anderson, Pompeii Director, on the Film's Scientific and Historical Accuracy", The Huffington Post February 21. This interview addresses the scientific and historical accuracy of the film.
- Click here for an interesting on set interview with Pompeii’s (2014) Director Paul W.S. Anderson.
- For a detailed discussion of the making of Pompeii (2014) check out this blog post written by the Dickinson College Department of Classical History. Downs, H., (2014), "Hollywood and History: Pompeii (2014)."
- Alberge, D., (2014) "Film brings Pompeii back to life perfectly and destroys it again", The Guardian 26 April.
- Multiple film adaptations of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's famous novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834) have been made over the years. The first version was made in 1900 and was a silent film. Subsequent silent film versions were produced in 1908 and 1913. Click here for summaries and clips of all three films.
- The Last Days of Pompeii (1935). This is the first sound version of the adaptation of the novel The Last Days of Pompeii (1834). Click here to watch a clip from this classic black and white film. here
- The Last Days of Pompeii (1959).
- The Simpsons Series 17 Episode 08 ‘The Italian Bob.' The site of Pompeii makes a very brief appearance in this episode in which we follow the Simpson’s trip to Italy. Listen out for Lisa’s interesting description of the eruption and Fiorelli's plaster casts.
- Pompeii features in the BBC drama Dr Who in Series 4 Episode 2 named ‘The Fires of Pompeii.' Check it out here.
- The popular television series The Roman Mysteries features an episode called ‘The Secrets of Vesuvius.' Although this episode is not directly in Pompeii it does dramatise the eruption of Mt Vesuvius and introduces key historical figures such as Pliny the Elder. Click here to watch the episode.
Pompeii in Pop Culture: Music
Since the mid 18th century Pompeii has provided inspiration to a range of diverse musicians and performers, including classical composers such as Mozart and rock bands such as Pink Floyd. Pompeii has featured in songs, albums and operas, whilst the site itself has hosted performances from some of the world’s leading musicians.
- In 1971 rock band Pink Floyd famously performed in Pompeii’s amphitheatre. Footage captured of this performance was released as a documentary called Pink Floyd: Live at Pompeii (1972).
- In 2016 David Gilmour, lead singer and guitarist of Pink Floyd, returned to Pompeii’s amphitheatre where he performed once again. This time Gilmour performed to 3000 fans as part of his Rattle the Lock World Tour.
- Barton, L., (2016), "David Gilmour review – Pompeii rocks again", The Guardian 10 July.
- Grow, K., (2017), "Inside David Gilmour’s Stunning New Pompeii Concert Film", Rolling Stone, 12 September.
- Bastille "Pompeii" official music video.
- Dan Smith and Kyle Simmons from the band Bastille talk about the inspiration and story behind writing their hit song “Pompeii”. Click here to watch the interview.
- The British Museum hosted the band Bastille back in 2013. The band performed their hit song ‘Pompeii’ in the museum’s exhibition Pompeii: Life and Death. Click here to watch this moving performance.
Pompeii and Herculaneum in Museum Exhibitions
- The Smithsonian Museum's 2006 exhibition ‘Resurrecting Pompeii’.
- British Museum's 2013 exhibition ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’.
- Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum. Curator Paul Roberts provides a glimpse into a selection of the 450 objects featured in the museum's blockbuster exhibition.
- Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum exhibition promotional video.
- The J. Paul Getty Museum’s 2007 exhibition ‘The Herculaneum Women’.
- ‘SplendORI: Herculaneum & Luxury Ornaments’ exhibition at Herculaneum (December 2018-September 2019). This exhibition showcases objects excavated from Herculaneum in the early 20th century and more recent archaeological discoveries from the site. This is the first exhibition to be held in the newly opened Antiquarium of Herculaneum.
- The National Maritime Museum Sydney in 2017 hosted the international exhibition ‘Escape from Pompeii.’ This exhibition documents the untold rescue attempt told through the words of Pliny the Elder and his nephew Pliny the Younger.
- The Naples National Archaeological Museum held an exhibition called ‘Alma Tadema e la nostalgia dell'antico' or "Alma Tadema and the longing for the antique." This exhibition sought to illustrate how Laurence Alma-Tadema and other influential painters have represented Pompeii in their artworks.
- The Melbourne Museum and the Western Australian Museum hosted the international touring exhibition ‘A Day in Pompeii’ in 2009/2010. This exhibition contained over 270 objects from Pompeii, some of which had never been seen before. To view some of the objects which featured in this exhibition click here. As part of this exhibition The Melbourne Museum commissioned Zero One to create a stereoscopic re-creation of the eruption of Mt Vesuvius. Click here to watch this fantastic animation.
- Researchers from Lund University in Sweeden have constucted a detailed reconstruction of the house of Caecilius Iucundus using 3D technology. This forms part of The Swedish Pompeii Project, which aims to document the current state of Pompeii before the site deteriorates further. Click here to check out the virtual reconstruction.
- Demetrescu, E., Ferdani, D., Dell’Unto, N., Leander Touati, A., Lindgren, S., (2016), “Reconstructing the original splendour of the House of Caecilius Iucundus. A complete methodology for virtual archaeology aimed at digital exhibition”, SCIentific RESearch and Information Technology 6:1, 51-66. This article discusses the methodolgy and processes behind the production of the Lund University’s virtual model of the house of Lucundus.
- Lyons, C.L., & Reed, M., (2007), 'The Visible and the Visual: Pompeii and Herculaneum in the Getty Research Institute Collections' in M. Greenberg (ed.) Antiquity Recovered:The Legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum, Los Angeles, California, pp.133-156.