How an Ancient Italian Volcano Changed America

By Amy Barr


Several years ago my husband and I visited all the usual places while giving our children a tour of Washington, D.C. We trekked miles to see the major memorials. As we walked, we chatted about American history, political thought, Classical ideals, art, and architecture. While waiting to see The National Archives, an impromptu group of listeners formed as we explained the neoclassical images adorning the building. One eavesdropper remarked, “I didn’t know this art had to do with Greece and Rome!”

Thomas Jefferson was more than architect of our Declaration of Independence; he also was fascinated by real architecture as he imagined the construction of our new nation.1 He gave considerable thought to crafting buildings to last for generations. Jefferson could have recommended the flowery architecture of European cathedrals or the onion-bulb towers of Russia or even the down-to-earth Colonial style. Instead, he dreamed up enough columns and capitals to make Cicero himself feel at home.

Our nation’s Founding Fathers drew inspiration from the Classical world, but what brought Roman ideals to the fore in the late 1700s? Two factors came into play. First was Jefferson’s brilliant Classical education. Second, I suggest, was the unearthing of thousands of mysterious things in northern Italy that had remained hidden since the tragic eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in A.D. 79. The discovery of these objects came to light during our nation’s most formative years.       (more…)