Ashen Sky

Review by Willard Manus

The volcanic destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in A.D. 79 is the subject of a new book published recently by the Getty Museum. ASHEN SKY: THE LETTERS OF PLINY THE YOUNGER ON THE ERUPTION OF VESUVIUS recaptures that catastrophic event with dramatic power, thanks not only to Pliny's retelling of the event but to Barry Moser's evocative illustrations. Moser, one of the finest book illustrators working today, has contributed sixteen b&w relief engravings to the forty-page book, turning it into an instant collector's item.

Pliny the Younger was a lawyer and civil servant in Bronze Age Italy. Famed for his oratorical and literary gifts, he took the name of his maternal uncle, Pliny the Elder, who was an esteemed admiral and historian best known today for his 37-volume Natural History, an encyclopedic work which is an important source of knowledge about ancient times.

When Pliny the Elder perished in the Vesuvius disaster (while commanding the naval garrison there), the historian Tacitus asked his nephew to write a description of his namesake's death. Pliny the Younger, having observed the volcanic eruption from his villa across the Bay of Naples, wrote two letters to Tacitus which have survived over the ages and provide the inspiration for ASHEN SKY.

Pliny's careful, precise description of the event inspired Moser (who has done wood engravings for more than a hundred books, including a King James bible) to try and encapsulate the overwhelming violence and destruction of the eruption. The challenge was formidable, but the results are distinguished. Among the unforgettable illustrations are the portrait of Vulcan, god of the forge; the depiction of Pliny the Elder's ship being battered by a roiling sea and a firestorm of pumice; the agony of a villager being buried alive under a river of fiery lava.

ASHEN SKY was written and translated by Benedict Gilman, and designed by Kurt Hauser. (J. Paul Getty Museum, $19.95 hardcover).