“NYDIA, THE BLIND FLOWER GIRL OF POMPEII”
REPLICATION AND THE ART OF THE SENSES
“Nydia, the Blind Flower Girl of Pompeii” is a marble sculpture designed by Randolph Rogers [1825–1892], and reproduced in two sizes for 167 copies.
“Nydia” portrays how narratives can inspire art and, in turn, how art can function as a communicative medium that externalizes objects as text. Inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii, Randolph Rogers’ “Nydia” symbolizes aspects of a lost Pompeii and captures an oft-overlooked scenario — the “visibility” of blindness. Nydia, although a fictitious character, offers insight into Mount Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 C.E. and materializes a conceivable experience for victims in its path of destruction. Rogers translates Bulwer-Lytton’s text into a physical form that brings to life not only Nydia’s literary character, but also the historic eruption in Pompeii.
Nydia is visually impaired, which makes the experience for the spectator even more haunting if we imagine the chaos surrounding her. When viewing this magnificent artwork in person, the observer’s senses are so effectively heightened that they become a participant in this scene. We see Nydia gripping her staff as a Corinthian capital has fallen at her feet. Even if we haven’t fully appreciated Nydia’s emotional and physical sacrifice to guide her unrequited lover Glaucus and his companion (Ione) to safety, we can undoubtedly sense Nydia’s vulnerability as she stays behind — ultimately ending her own life from grief.
Nydia, although a fictitious character, offers insight into Mount Vesuvius’ eruption and materializes a conceivable experience for victims in its path of destruction.
The sculptor draws the spectator into the scene by tracing a linear path with Nydia’s left arm, which extends to her right ear — a gesture which also accentuates Nydia’s eyes through the alignment of her fingers. Nydia is curiously evaluating her danger, most likely listening in the direction of the sea, but she is limited to relying on sounds, the taste of the air, her touch, and smell.
The ironic tension rests in Nydia’s blindness. Even though she is unable to visually assess the destruction caused by the volcanic ash, we can imagine the darkness that permeated Pompeii would have “blinded” all others who were witness to this horrific scene. Randolph Rogers’ sculpture appeals to the senses because Nydia’s innocence and lack of sight are apparent to the spectator, regardless of reading any didactic panel about the piece. Knowing that “Nydia” signifies plight in Pompeii makes this art medium appealing to senses beyond sight.
Typically, no special attention is given to this sculpture in the different collections where “Nydia” is held; however, spectators are drawn to Nydia, and we must entertain the notion of “why?” I was attracted to the concept that, although Nydia could not see the dangers of the volcanic eruption, she likely was more aware of her environment than those around her.
This interpretive, three-dimensional representation of Pompeii provides what Pliny the Younger’s account, or Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s antiquarian novel The Last Days of Pompeii, could not convey with words alone. Narration is essential when recounting past events, but art has the ability to complement written accounts by elevating the observer’s experience.
For additional information on “Nydia” in her literary or artistic form, see:
Edward Bulwer-Lytton. The Last Days of Pompeii (London: Richard Bentley, 1834).
Judith A. Barter, Kimberly Rhodes, and Seth A. Thayer. American Arts at The Art Institute of Chicago: From Colonial Times to World War I (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1998), pp. 177-179, no. 79.
Princeton University Art Museum: Handbook of the Collections (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Art Museum, 2013).
* Photographs of ‘Nydia’ were taken at the Princeton University Art Museum, while Dr. Genova was a Library Research Fellow funded through the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies at Princeton University in 2019. The dimensions of this marble reproduction are as follows: 135 × 73.5 × 92.5 cm (53 1/8 × 28 15/16 × 36 7/16 in.).
** Note: this adapted text is from a previously unpublished reaction piece, written for a seminar on the “History of History” in 2011.
Genova received her PhD in 2019 from the University of Chicago’s Department of History for her dissertation “Strategies of Resistance: Cretan Archaeology and Political Networks during the late 19th and early 20th century.” In addition to her tenure as a research fellow at the American School of Classical Studies at Athens, she has excavated in the Peloponnese of Greece, as well as Salemi, Sicily for several excavation seasons.