The Roman city of Pompeii, south of Naples, was under active excavation in the early 19th century, work having begun on the city and its neighbour Herculaneum in the middle of the previous century. Artists were well aware of its potential as a subject. John Martin had painted The Destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum in 1822 and others had sketched and produced engravings of the site.
In 1823, Bryullov arrived in Rome with his brother Aleksandr via Venice and Florence. Aleksandr was a participant in a scientific study and restoration of the Pompeii baths in 1825–26, which led to the publication of his book Thermes de Pompéi in Paris in 1829, and Karl may have visited Pompeii in 1824. He saw Alessandro Sanquirico’s set designs for Giovanni Pacini’s opera L’ultimo giorno di Pompei (1825), which was performed at Naples and at La Scala, Milan, and visited the Naples museum to study artefacts recovered from Pompeii. He certainly visited Pompeii in 1827 and according to Rosalind Blakesley, was so affected by the remains of the Via dei Sepolcri (Street of the Tombs) that he decided to set his painting in that street. Contemporary letters indicate that he studied Pliny the Younger’s eye-witness description of the disaster, in which Pliny’s uncle died, and Pliny’s observations in his letters to Tacitus were referenced in the picture.Also in literature, Bryullov read Alessandro Manzoni’s novel I Promessi Sposi (The Betrothed) (1827) with its historically based account of a disastrous plague and the reactions to it of individuals.
Raphael, The School of Athens, fresco, 1509–1511, Apostolic Palace, Vatican City. An example for Bryullov of what could be achieved in history painting.
Bryullov spent several days in Pompeii walking the newly uncovered streets and imagining how the city looked before the eruption. The feelings that the artist experienced during this trip were so strong he started working on the painting shortly after his visit. He closely studied archaeological and historical sources to make sure his painting was as realistic as possible.
In Last Day of Pompeii, Bryullov used two different sources of light: the dramatic red light from the volcano and the cold greenish light coming from the sky, which adds even more emotional tension to the painting. These bright and deep colors also go beyond the classical tradition, which has led people to call Bryullov a romanticism artist in this case.