In AD 79, on 24 August, the Italian town of Pompeii, a prosperous settlement of perhaps 20,000 or 30,000 inhabitants, was the largest victim of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. A huge cloud of gases and ash, thrown up by the explosion, collapsed and flowed with deadly force and speed, across the city. Escape was impossible, and the city was entombed, though never completely forgotten.

The recovery of Pompeii had a false start in the 16th century, but began in earnest when in 1689, the sinking of a well brought to light some inscribed walls. In 1709 the amphitheatre at Herculaneum was found, but it was the Bourbons who drove exploration forward when in 1734, Charles III began to demonstrate his enlightened attitudes by encouraging work in the area. From this point on, excavation, especially at Pompeii, continued more or less unabated, until the 1960s. 67 hectares of an extraordinarily well-preserved town are now visible, a UNESCO World Heritage site and the focus of over 2.5 million tourists a year.

On 6 November 2010, part of this remarkable inheritance was destroyed. The Schola Armatorum, or House of the Gladiators, with frescoes of winged victories carrying weapons and shields, collapsed. (It had been reconstructed in part after bomb damage in world war two). A few days later, the garden wall of the House of the Moralist also collapsed. From 2008 to 2010 there have been about a dozen such events, many along the Via dell