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Some corpses lie undisturbed longer than others. We expect that our own mortal remains, shrouded in silk, buried in mahogany coffins, and marked by granite stones, will be left untouched for eternity. So, too, did the Egyptians, whose mummified bodies now entertain the ghoulish among us at unwrapping parties. Their elaborate tombs offered no protection. Why should our fate be any different? Even the victims of the unexpected eruption of Mount Vesuvius nearly two thousand years ago, blanketed by impossibly deep layers of ash and pumice, have reemerged. Plaster casts, formed by archaeologists, allow tourists in Pompeii a glimpse of the terror and heartache of their final moments. None of us is safe from exposure after death.
Standing in the ruins of an ancient dining room, a triclinium, as the Romans called it, we—my husband, Colin Hargreaves, Ivy Brandon, and I—had gathered around a group of these casts. Three walls remained, each covered with bright frescoes. The fourth side of the room, marked with columns, opened into a charming garden, in the center of which stood a fountain.
“They would have dined here in the summer,” I said. “The chamber is positioned to take advantage of the angle of the sun at that time of year, flooding it with natural light. The columns frame the outdoor features beautifully, and—”
“I never would’ve thought the Romans wore sideburns,” Ivy said, crouching next to one of the casts. “This gentleman looks as if he stepped off the streets of London last week.”
Ivy, who since we were children had tried to provide a tempering influence on my more outrageous iconoclastic impulses, was not prone to interrupting anyone. From the earliest days of our acquaintance, I had observed her effortlessly perfect manners, but had never managed to emulate them. Her patience was unmatched. Once—from a safe distance—I watched her listen for more than half an hour, an expression of rapt attention on her face, to a dull MP drone on about some speech he had given in the Commons that afternoon. She never tried to get in a single word.
My husband struggled not to laugh. “Emily, you’d best stop lecturing,” he said. “No detail about ancient dining rooms can compete with the gruesome pleasure of the mortal remains they contain.” I turned back to the casts. Two of them, a woman and a male slave, identifiable by her hairstyle and his thick belt, curled in fetal positions, she covering her face with her arms, he frozen for eternity with one hand stretched toward the sky. The third, which Ivy was examining, lay with his arms at his sides, one knee bent, the other straight.
“Did you say sideburns, Ivy?” I asked. “The Romans didn’t wear them. Not like that.” I forced myself to kneel beside my friend. I like to believe that, after more than a decade spent investigating heinous murders, I am capable of remaining undaunted in the face of violent death. I have observed a multitude of bodies in a variety of hideous states and, while always grieved that any human should suffer such an end, I can compartmentalize these emotions in order to pursue justice for the dead. Yet almost from the moment I stepped into the ruins at Pompeii, the tragedy of the site overwhelmed me. I could hardly bear to look at the casts, let alone scrutinize them. Their humanity was all too palpable.
Colin squatted on the other side of the man. “This doesn’t look right.” He pulled a penknife from his pocket and began to dig into the plaster.
“Don’t!” I reached to stop him. “This is an archaeological site. You can’t—”
“This man is no Roman, at least not an ancient one,” he said, his deep voice calm as he continued to remove bits of the cast from the man’s arm. Chalky flakes fell away under his blade, revealing a patch of grayish-blue skin. “I shan’t go any further. If he were a victim of Vesuvius, we would find hollow space beneath the plaster, not flesh. Our friend here has not been buried long enough to decay. I’d wager he hasn’t been dead more than a few weeks.”
Ivy’s brown eyes widened and the color drained from her rosy cheeks. She turned away from the cast, struggled to her feet, and was sick behind a convenient cypress tree.
* * *
We had arrived in Pompeii four days earlier, traveling at Ivy’s invitation. She had recently made the acquaintance of two Americans, a brother and sister, Benjamin and Calliope Carter. He, a moody painter, and she, an enthusiastic archaeologist, were preparing to leave London to work for an American called Balthazar Taylor at what many consider the world’s greatest ancient site. My friend’s gentle kindness endeared her to everyone she encountered, and soon after meeting the siblings, she hatched a scheme to follow them to Italy. Knowing of my passion for the ancient world, she invited me to join her.
Inseparable in our youth, Ivy and I had not seen much of each other of late. My work and her devotion to motherhood—at last count, she had a brood of six—meant that our paths no longer crossed with regularity, but this was not indicative of a loss of affection between us. When she asked me to accompany her on her excursion abroad, I rejoiced at the chance to rekindle our friendship. Colin, whose discreet work for the Palace now included special attention to King Edward VII’s personal protection, was harder to bring around, but was at last convinced by a sly move on the part of Ivy’s husband, who could not abide the idea of his wife traveling with only a solitary female companion. I adore Robert, but his views can be rather old-fashioned.
On this occasion, I was profoundly grateful for his outdated morals. When Colin hesitated, Robert went straight to the king, who went straight to my husband, bursting into our library in Park Lane before our butler could announce him. Hargreaves, old chap, you can’t let the ladies down. They need a chaperone, and there’s none better than you, His Majesty had said. Colin knew the futility of arguing with Bertie (I would never be able to think of him as Edward, the Seventh or otherwise), but that was not what persuaded him. Robert—and the king—had appealed to his sense of duty, something Colin would never shirk. And so, by the next morning, my husband was organizing the details of our trip. I suspect he took no small measure of delight in leaving London. A gentleman driven by honor and principle, he had never held the king in high regard. Bertie, during his tenure as Prince of Wales, had proven more interested in gambling, mistresses, and cruel pranks than in useful occupation, and as a result, Colin had nothing but scorn for him.
The only disappointment that stemmed from our trip was the knowledge that another mutual friend, Margaret Michaels, was unable to join us. After a decade of marriage to an extremely even-tempered Oxford don, she was not-so-eagerly awaiting the arrival of her first child and had expressed in no uncertain terms how unfair it was that she be excluded from the adventure. The baby, she said, was sure to be a delight, but if she could have hired a servant to give birth in her place, no sum would have been too great to pay.
Colin found for us a charming villa south of modern Pompeii, only a few miles from the excavations with sweeping vistas of the Bay of Naples in one direction and of Mount Vesuvius in the other. After an uneventful journey, we were soon comfortably settled and ready to tour the ruins. The Carter siblings proved able guides, giving us a splendid overview of the site.
“You must call me Callie,” Miss Carter said, when we first met her under the brick arch of Pompeii’s Marina Gate. “Calliope is such a mouthful, ironic for the muse of epic poetry and eloquence, don’t you think? Dear old papa loved the classics. I’m fortunate he didn’t decide to call me Polyhymnia or Euterpe.” She was considerably shorter than I, but gave the impression she could command an army battalion without visible effort. With Titian hair and a voice so melodious she would have sounded as if she were singing if she didn’t speak with such an assertive rhythm, the name suited her. Her alluring figure was more like that found on an ancient depiction of Aphrodite than the pigeon breast silhouette favored by the current crop of fashionists, and although her face, with a spattering of freckles across her nose, could not be described as beautiful or even pretty, it was undeniably intriguing. Her eyes, hazel, with flecks of green that would perfectly suit some legendary Irish queen, flashed with intelligence.
Her brother, Benjamin, bore almost no resemblance to her, at least not physically. His features were as unremarkable as hers were beguiling, but his fiery temperament mirrored Callie’s. He explained that his expertise was not in archaeology, but as an artist. He had exhibited his work at two small shows in New York before they came abroad and now hoped the Italian landscape would inspire him to the greatness that, so far, had eluded him.
“Callie insisted I take this position so she might have access to Mr. Taylor,” he said. “She was convinced—rightly so—that, faced with the force of her personality, he would take her on as well.” His sister’s tenacity impressed me; it was not so easy in those days for a woman to earn a place in an archaeological expedition.
The excavations at Pompeii go back hundreds of years. We have records of accidental finds from as early as the late fifteen hundreds, but it was not until the eighteenth century that digging began in earnest. The Kings of Naples, especially Ferdinand IV, who had the questionable taste to commission a sculpture of himself as Minerva (still on display at the museum in Naples; you may judge for yourself the value of this work), were responsible for the first large-scale exploration of the site. They were motivated not by the quest for knowledge, but for treasure, and were little better than the charlatans who pillaged Egypt in the early part of the nineteenth century. Desirous of acquiring personal collections that could rival those of other European monarchs, they ordered their minions to ruthlessly cut paintings from walls, destroyed items they deemed not valuable enough, and, when faced with a group of sculptures of similar subjects, would keep the one in the finest condition and smash the others. All responsible scholars shudder at their methods.
Fortunately, after the unification of Italy in the 1860s, a man called Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the site. A remarkable individual and an archaeologist beyond reproach, Fiorelli grasped the importance of his role. He mapped the city, numbering every block, building, and door, and insisted that private residences and shops, as well as the spectacular public structures, be excavated. He sought information, not merely art, and cunningly began to create narratives about the lost city and its inhabitants that resonated with the public, ensuring widespread support for his work. He founded a national school for archaeology, and his perfection of the system used for creating the plaster casts of the volcano’s victims forever preserved the memory of the city’s ancient citizens, drawing droves of tourists to the site. I cannot condemn them as I do those who unwrap mummies in their parlors. Humans have an infinite capacity for morbid curiosity, but Fiorelli’s casts give us something more: a glimpse into individual personalities that we rarely see in the ancient world.
Copyright © 2019 by Tasha Alexander