August 24, 79: Mount Vesuvius erupts.
Much of what is known of the catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius comes from the descriptive epistles of Pliny the Younger (nephew of Pliny the Elder), who wrote that the event, which buried the nearby cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae, and others, was preceded by a series of small earthquakes that were not then recognized as precursors of the destruction that was to come. By all accounts, nearly everyone living within reach of the volcanic destruction was caught unprepared when Mount Vesuvius finally erupted - ejecting thick clouds of stone and ash into the air, and engulfing the cities in pyroclastic material, layered several feet thick.
Between 16,000 and 20,000 people were killed in the destruction, either from inhaling deadly gas fumes, from suffocation through ash inhalation, or from being struck by pieces of debris and rock. The subsequent rainfall turned the layers of ash and volcanic material which covered Pompeii into a kind of natural concrete, hiding and preserving the city until its rediscovery in the 16th century. Herculaneum was not rediscovered and excavated until 1738.
Excerpt from one of Pliny’s letters/accounts of the eruption:
Ashes were already falling, not as yet very thickly. I looked round: a dense black cloud was coming up behind us, spreading over the earth like a flood.’Let us leave the road while we can still see,’ I said, ‘or we shall be knocked down and trampled underfoot in the dark by the crowd behind.’ We had scarcely sat down to rest when darkness fell, not the dark of a moonless or cloudy night, but as if the lamp had been put out in a closed room.
Jason Charming the Dragon (1665 - 1670), Salvator Rosa
May 6, 1895: Rudolph Valentino is born.
Born in Italy, Rudolph Valentino was one of the most popular actors of the last years of the silent movie era - his most notable films, including The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, The Sheik, Blood and Sand, The Eagle, and The Son of the Sheik, were released between 1921 and 1926, the year of his death. Unlike swaggering swashbucklers like Douglas Fairbanks and masculine leading men like John Gilbert, Valentino was loved and criticized for his “femininity” and his un-American, exotic looks, which caused him to be typecast in roles like that of the titular character in The Sheik. One editorial in the Chicago Tribune was scathing in its criticism of Valentino and his destructive (in the opinion of the editorial’s author) attack on American masculinity:
A powder vending machine! In a men’s washroom! Homo Americanus! Why didn’t someone quietly drown Rudolph Guglielmo [sic], alias Valentino, years ago?… Do women like the type of “man” who pats pink powder on his face in a public washroom and arranges his coiffure in a public elevator?
Valentino’s popularity as a romantic lead and sex symbol was unrivaled at the time (and few from that era have left legacies as enduring), and when he died of pleuritis at the early age of thirty-one, it was reported that several of his fans had attempted suicide and that riots had broken out at his funeral. His untimely death only further cemented his status as a cultural icon.
April 27, 1945: Benito Mussolini is captured.
On this day in 1945, Italy’s former father of fascism, who had adopted the title Il Duce and a dictatorship over his country from the late 1920s until 1943, was captured by Italian communist partisans, along with his mistress Clara Petacci.
In mid-1943, Mussolini was ousted by the Grand Council of Fascism during the eventually successful Allied invasion of Sicily, but he remained in power through the intervention of his German allies, who rescued him and set up under his name a new puppet regime headquartered in Salò, in northern Italy. By this time, Mussolini, his health in a poor state and his characteristic confidence blighted by constant failure, was no longer the bombastic leader who had once marched on Rome, by his own admittance - in an early 1945 interview, he said most uncharacteristically:
I have no fight left in me. I work and I try, yet know that all is but a farce … I await the end of the tragedy and – strangely detached from everything – I do not feel any more an actor. I feel I am the last of spectators.
Allied forces liberated Rome in July 1944, while partisan resistance fought Axis forces from within the country. Amidst this fighting and German retreat, Mussolini, his mistress, and officials of his puppet government made an escape attempt to Switzerland, and then to Spain, but were stopped by communist partisans and then executed the next day in a village in northern Italy. Their bodies were brought to Milan and dumped in the Piazzale Loreto, where civilians hung them upside down on meathooks - and stoned them, shot at them, and spat on them.
Other links: mutilated corpses of Mussolini and Petacci (graphic)
Medusa burgonet, Italy, 1543 (Filippo Negroli)
Caravaggio (September 29, 1571 - July 18, 1610)
There was art before him and art after him, and they were not the same.