It would be a mistake to limit your search for beautiful picture books to the children’s area in a bookstore. I found Ashen Sky in the history section at a university bookstore, among the textbooks and ubiquitous backpacked youth. Someone had the good sense to ‘face’ it out, so when the book caught my eye, it was an entirely calculated move on the part of the bookseller, with predictable results. I stopped, and then I bought.
Ashen Sky: The Letters of Pliny the Younger on the Eruption of Vesuvius is illustrated by Barry Moser, a very accomplished and prolific artist. Although he often paints in watercolour, Moser is primarily a master engraver, and Ashen Skyis yet another example of his virtuosity in this medium. In a series of striking plates, Moser illustrates various scenes described by Pliny the Younger in two letters he wrote to his friend (and famous Roman historian), Tacitus, concerning the eruption of Vesuvius and the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder and Far More Decrepit. Gathering material for what would eventually be the 12 volume Histories, Tacitus asks Pliny Junior to revisit the day of August 24th in 79 AD, when Mt Vesuvius erupted, destroying Pompeii and Herculaneum, killing thousands of people, including his uncle.
Pliny the Younger had been residing with his mother and uncle in nearby Misenum when the eruption took place. Pliny the Reckless decides to investigate ‘a cloud of unusual size and form’ rising from the vicinity of Vesuvius, a decision which costs him his life. The two letters describing these events are accompanied by splendid biographies of Tacitus and the two Plinys, a map, and some additional information regarding Vesuvius. It’s fascinating stuff. Even the design of the book, with the heavy-weight paper and red chapter headings, give Ashen Sky a classic, collectible feel.
There is a detailed description of Moser’s ‘process’ at the back of the book. He has created wood engravings for more than 100 books, which is an incredible feat of dedication, if not sheer inventiveness. I would guess this man does not own a television. Employing both classic (wood) and modern (computer) methods, the heavily shadowed, thick-lined engravings are Moser’s trademark, and Ashen Sky provides a perfect vessel for his sublimely dark illustrations.
A distant scene of Vesuvius blowing her top is followed
by a sorrowful depiction of some pour soul with a pillow tied to his head, trying in vain to soften the impact of hot stone and pumice clobbering his body from every direction. The play of light and dark, both in tone and subject matter is one of Moser’s greatest strengths, and his stunning black & white engravings bring a new emotional depth to a familiar, but nevertheless catastrophic moment in history.
Ashen Sky: The Letters of Pliny the Younger on the Eruption of Vesuvius illustrated by Barry Moser J. Paul Getty Publications, 2008 ISBN: 978-0892369003
Although I would not describe myself as a particularly godly person, I do own copy of Moser’s spectacular King James version of the bible, called (rather uninventively) The Holy Bible Viking Studio, 1999 ISBN: 0670887978 Originally published in a limited edition by Pennyroyal Press, Moser’s own imprint.
Also, if Pliny Jr whetted your appetite for all things Vesuvius, I would suggest the Robert Harris novel Pompeii (Arrow, 2003). It’s a great read, pyroclastically speaking…