Ancient vandalism? graffiti and literature

82fe360c-805d-11e4_1115484hEmily Gowers at the Times Literary Supplement:

When Pompeii was rediscovered in the eighteenth century, no one was particularly interested in the rash of graffiti scratched on its walls. Excavators at the time were too busy carting away bulky and aesthetically pleasing works of art as trophies for the Bourbon kings. It was not until the mid-nineteenth century, and the advent of “romantic” archaeology, that one open-minded director, Francesco Maria Avellino, had the foresight to start conserving these fragile, less prestigious relics, thousands of which still survive, either in situ or detached with their original plaster. Other early enthusiasts included Chateaubriand and Bishop Wordsworth, both of whom recognized the “primitive” appeal of the insignificant-looking scrawls and their power to safeguard the noisy, if sometimes indecorous, opinions of Pompeii’s dramatically silenced inhabitants: the trials of school (“If Cicero pains you, you’ll get a flogging”), the pangs of love (“Rufus loves Cornelia”), threats (“Beware of shitting here”), electioneering (“Cuspius for aedile”) and insults (“Narcissus is a giant cocksucker”).

Like other unwelcome, staining deposits, graffiti has always polarized people into defenders and aggressors, neighbourhood-watchers and anarchists. In 1987, Susan Sontag wrote earnestly about the “indecipherable signatures of mutinous adolescents . . . washed over and bitten into the façades of monuments and the surfaces of public vehicles in the city where I live: graffiti as an assertion of disrespect, yes, but most of all simply an assertion . . . the powerless saying: I’m here too”.

more here.