Pompeii for the Tourists: A History of Excavation and Sightseeing

Judith Harris POMPEII AWAKENED A story of rediscovery 320pp. Tauris. £18.99 (US $35). 978 1 845 11241 7
Victoria C. Gardener Coates and Jon L. Seydl, editors ANTIQUITY RECOVERED The legacy of Pompeii and Herculaneum 304pp. Getty Publications. US $60. 978 0 8923 6872 3

If you wanted to visit Pompeii in the mid-nineteenth century, you were best advised to take the train from Naples to the nearby station, and walk or ride to one of the main entrances to the site. That is certainly what Pope Pius IX did on October 22, 1849, during his brief exile from revolutionary Rome. As Judith Harris tells the story in Pompeii Awakened, her entertaining account of the rediscovery of the buried city, Pius arrived on the 8.30 train, accompanied by a posse of Swiss Guards, some Neapolitan dignitaries and his own personal chef. “To save His Holiness from a long walk in the ruins”, a cart was laid on – and, as its modern wheel gauge did not match the ancient, many of the famous Pompeian stepping stones across the streets had to be removed in his path, never to be replaced. The Pope toured the site, admired the House of the Faun (where the famous Alexander mosaic, now in the Archaeological Museum in Naples, was still in place), and then watched an excavation in progress, which conveniently turned up some antiquities for him to take away.

Minus the cart, the vandalism and the over-sized escort, this was the standard pattern of visit followed by more ordinary tourists. The first edition of Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Southern Italy, published in 1853, recommended arriving by train, unless you were in a party of more than five when – ticket prices being what they were – a carriage all the way from Naples was cheaper (a piece of economic common sense that was obviously lost on the Pope). When you reached the station it strongly advised entering the site along the Street of Tombs, now the main tourist route out of the city to the Villa of the Mysteries, and walking through the ruins back to the Hotel Bellevue by the station, where you could get a late lunch from “a very civil and obliging landlord”. The energetic could then either choose to visit the amphitheatre or take in Herculaneum on the way home. Though the Pope had made a special visit to this other buried city a few days after his Pompeii excursion (and picked up some more loot in the process), for most tourists Herculaneum, which had been one of the greatest European cultural attractions a century earlier, was now worth only a stop on the return journey if there was time. Pompeii was what you came to Naples to see.

Of course, the visitor’s experience changed in many ways through the nineteenth century. By 1865 – so a later edition of Murray’s Handbook makes clear – the site was charging an entrance fee, which covered the cost of a now compulsory guide or cicerone; while the Hotel Bellevue was under new management, had been renamed the Hotel Diomede and become a dangerous tourist trap (readers were warned not to order a meal without coming to “an agreement as to the charge beforehand with mine host”). But many essentials of the visit remained the same.

The entrance to the city via the Street of Tombs, which continued to be the recommended route until the 1870s, underlined the fact that for most nineteenth-century tourists a visit to Pompeii was a visit to the city of the dead. It was a funerary as much as an archaeological site, prompting reflections on the tragedy of the destruction and the fragility of the human condition at the same time as it, paradoxically, seemed to bring the ancient world to “life”. Skeletons had always been high on the visitor’s agenda. But the pathos of the Pompeii experience was even further intensified by the technique of making casts of the bodies of the victims, developed in the 1860s by Giuseppe Fiorelli (the erstwhile radical politician, who became one of the most influential directors in the history of the Pompeian excavations). Plaster poured into the cavities left by the decomposing flesh and clothing of the dead produced startling images of their physical features and the contortions of their last moments.

These casts are the subject of a fascinating chapter by Eugene Dwyer in Antiquity Recovered, a sumptuously illustrated collection of essays on the modern history of Pompeii and Herculaneum, edited by Victoria C. Gardner Coates and Jon L. Seydl. Dwyer explains how the heavy clothing visible on the casts, the trousers apparently worn by both sexes and the scarved heads of the women – “all’uso degli orientali”, as one archaeologist put it – dispelled the popular image of Roman dress as scanty, if not lasciviously revealing. (Others have since wondered if what people decide to wear in the middle of a volcanic eruption can really be taken as typical everyday clothing: maybe the headscarves were not so much “oriental” as a practical device to keep ash out of the hair.) He also follows the history of several casts that became particularly famous symbols of the city and its destruction. These included one of the first group to be made by Fiorelli: a woman fallen on her back, straining upwards to breathe, her skirt gathered around her hips giving the probably misleading impression that she was pregnant. Some Victorian scholars took her to be a prostitute (she was carrying a small statuette of Cupid and a silver mirror); others saw her as a dutiful housewife (on the basis of a large iron key she was also carrying). Either way, this “pregnant woman”, as she was usually known, took a starring role in discussions of the site in the 1860s and early 1870s and is recorded in early photographs – until she was upstaged by yet more evocative images of suffering, and her cast was mysteriously lost.

These dying figures continue to haunt the modern imagination. As Jennie Hirsh discusses in another essay in Antiquity Recovered, two such casts, clinging to each other even in death, take a cameo role in Rossellini’s 1953 film, Voyage to Italy – serving as a sharp and upsetting reminder to two modern tourists to the site (Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders) of just how distant and empty their own marriage has become. And even the most stony-hearted or austerely academic visitor finds it hard not to be a little moved by the few casts still displayed in glass cases on the site – their death agonies, uncomfortably, on show for all to see.

In other respects, however, the experience of visiting this city of the dead today is very different indeed from a century and a half ago. To be sure, many of the tourist highlights remain the same, even though more than twice the area exposed in the 1850s has since been uncovered: besides the attraction of the casts, visitors still flock to the House of the Faun, the Temple of Isis and the Stabian Baths. But the crucial point is that the underlying purpose of the visit has narrowed. Modern visitors mostly come to see an ancient city, to “step back in time” (albeit in the company of a couple of million others each year). Nineteenth-century visitors also came with those aims in mind; in fact, the idea that here for the very first time the daily life of the Romans was exposed to the modern gaze gave Pompeii its special edge for those early tourists. But they also came to see the processes by which the ancient past was revealed. They were interested in what we know about the ancient city, but they were no less interested in how.

One aspect of this interest in process comes out in the eager engagement of those nineteenth-century guidebooks with the doubts, uncertainties and debates on the identity and function of the ancient monuments on view. It was simply not obvious when they were first excavated what many of these buildings were, or were for. A classic case is the large structure, on the right-hand side of the Temple of Jupiter in the main forum of Pompeii, presented to modern tourists – uncontroversially – as a “market”, or macellum. It is now one of the least prepossessing of ruins on the site, the brilliant wall paintings enthusiastically hyped by many a Victorian traveller now faded beyond recognition. But there were once shop stalls down one side, a butcher’s counter at the rear and a fish-preparation area (to judge from the large quantity of fish scales discovered) beneath a canopy in the centre of the main courtyard – all operating under the divine protection of the deified emperors of Rome, whose shrine stood at the far end of the building, next to the butcher. Or so we are confidently told.

The nineteenth-century visitor, by contrast, was entertained with a range of conflicting interpretations. It might have been, so some of the best authorities then thought, a shrine of the twelve gods or Pantheon (on the assumption that the twelve supports now believed to have held up a central canopy were in fact twelve statue bases). Or it might have been a large cult area for the worship of Augustus, with “cells” for the priests of the imperial cult in what have been more recently identified as shops. Or, if you were Sir William Gell, whose Pompeiana, the best-selling handbook to the site of the first half of the century, lay behind Bulwer-Lytton’s even better-selling Last Days of Pompeii (1834), it was a nice “caff” with a shrine attached (in other words a city-centre coffee house or restaurant, the so-called shops being nothing of the sort, but the ancient equivalent of private dining booths – and that butcher’s counter being, actually, the fixed couches of a triclinium or dining room). True, sometimes more recent study or excavation has solved the puzzles that preoccupied previous generations. But often, as with this macellum, a convenient if dubious modern orthodoxy has simply taken the place of nineteenth-century debate and discussion.

These different priorities are also seen in the tradition of staged excavations of the kind which were laid on for the Pope in 1849, and had been the stock-in-trade of the Pompeian tourist industry since the eighteenth century – when any visiting dignitary was fair game for treasure, painting or (best of all) a skeleton to be dug up, apparently unexpectedly, in front of his very nose. We tend now to laugh at the crudeness of these charades and the gullibility of the audience (could visiting royalty have been so naive as to imagine that such wondrous discoveries just happened to be made at the very moment of their own arrival?). But, as often, the tricks of the tourist trade reveal the hopes and aspirations of the visitors as much as they expose the guile of the locals. Here the visitors wanted to witness not just the finds themselves, but the processes of excavation that brought the past to light.

Instructive, too, are the rhetorical conventions of the nineteenth-century guidebooks themselves, and of other popular accounts. For in their description of the monuments, these not only included the ancient history of each one, but also carefully and systematically noted the date and circumstance of their modern rediscovery. It is as if those early visitors were supposed to keep two chronologies running in their heads at the same time: on the one hand, the chronology of the ancient city itself and its development; on the other, the history of Pompeii’s gradual re-emergence into the modern world.

Pompeii Awakened and Antiquity Recovered both in their different ways try to recapture something of that stereoscopic vision, seeing the story of the re-excavation of the buried cities as crucial to our understanding of the sites as we visit them today. Both offer colourful and sometimes acute insights into the modern history of Pompeii and Herculaneum, from the first explorations under the idiosyncratic Bourbon kings (and their often formidable queens) and the archaeologically energetic Napoleonic regime, up to the two most distinguished directors of the more recent excavations: Fiorelli, who not only invented the technique of corpse-casting, but also divided Pompeii into the archaeological “regions” and “blocks” (regiones and insulae) by which it is still known, policed and surveyed; and Amedeo Maiuri, who survived Fascism and its fall to head the site from 1924 to 1962, who excavated more of Pompeii than anyone before or since – and who notoriously subsidized the work in the 1950s, as Harris rather cautiously explains, by offering the volcanic rubble from the excavations to the builders of the Naples–Salerno autostrada in return for workmen and digging equipment.

Histories of archaeology can be rather smug in tone, in a “look how much better we are than our predecessors” kind of way. Even the excellent Antiquity Recovered is not entirely free from this vice. In an otherwise interesting essay on the paintings from the “Porticus” in Herculaneum, Tina Najberg so often berates the poor old Bourbon excavators for ignoring the demands of “contextual” archaeology and for ripping out the best paintings from the site and taking them back to their museum, that I found myself leaning to the Bourbon side. After all, if the paintings in the macellum had been hauled off to the museum when they were first unearthed in all their brilliance, we would still be able to make out what they showed.

For the most part, though, Antiquity Recovered (which originates in what must have been an excellent conference at the University of Pennsylvania) hardly puts a foot wrong. It includes some marvellous case studies of the modern history of Pompeii by some of the best scholars working in the field. I particularly enjoyed James I. Porter’s reflections on the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum and his debunking of so many of the myths which have fuelled the campaign for its re-excavation and which occasionally colour Harris’s account in Pompeii Awakened (that, for example, it was owned by Piso, a relation of Julius Caesar and patron of the philosopher Philodemus, or that its “Latin Library” may await our discovery). Likewise Chloë Chard’s excellent essay on the significance of early tourists’ picnicking habits and their descriptions of conspicuous consumption on site (if the Pope dragged his private chef along to Pompeii, he can hardly have eaten more lavishly than at Anna Jameson’s 1822 “Picnic party of pleasure, à l’Anglaise” which included oysters, “London bottled porter, and half a dozen different kinds of wine”). And Lee Behlman’s nice contribution on the myth of the Roman guard, whose skeleton was supposed to have been found at the Herculaneum Gate, where he had died at his post as the ash fell, doggedly “Faithful unto Death” as the title of Edward Poynter’s heroizing painting of the scene put it.

But if there is a single contribution which demonstrates that the “reception” of Pompeii and the history of its excavations is not an optional extra but an essential part of the modern archaeological understanding of the site, it is Bettina Bergmann’s chapter on the famous “Dionysiac” frieze from the Villa of the Mysteries. Lavishly published by Maiuri in 1931, in a state-sponsored (ie, Fascist) volume, with state-of-the-art colour photography, these paintings – often taken to depict a marriage, or a mystic initiation complete with flagellation and revelation of the phallus – are now so closely associated with Maiuri’s name that many people, Harris included, imagine that he was the original excavator. In fact, the Villa had been uncovered in 1909 in what is euphemistically dubbed a “private” excavation by a local hotel owner, Aurelio Item – hence the first name of the site, “Villa Item”, not “Villa of the Mysteries”. And it had been published and discussed three times, with rather dreary black-and-white photographs, before Maiuri got his hands on it. (As Bergmann points out, it is interesting, given the subject matter of the paintings, that each of these early publications was by a woman: P. B. Mudie Cooke, Margarete Bieber and Jocelyn Toynbee.) In the course of a wide-ranging study of the frieze, which extends to its later appropriations in media as diverse as psychoanalysis and HBO’s Rome, Bergmann poses one crucial question. How close were Maiuri’s images of the frieze to what was originally excavated? Or, for that matter, how accurate a reflection of what was found in 1909 is what we now see on the site? Many visitors may realize that the roof of the room concerned and the upper walls are modern restoration (although my own observation suggests that a good number believe that the whole room, roof and all, is a miraculous piece of preservation from antiquity). Most tourists – and indeed most academic visitors – assume that the paintings, at least, are presented more or less as they came out of the ground. Are they right? Are we looking at the “freshness and vividness of the originals”, as archaeologists have claimed?

Through searching out old photographs and with some careful work in the Pompeii archives, Bergmann shows how much a modern construction these most famous and “best preserved” of all Roman paintings are. In the period between their first discovery and the Maiuri publication, they were left deteriorating for a few years, unprotected but for some cloth hangings; they were pilfered and reassembled (some pieces were found in Item’s hotel); they were removed from the wall and remounted (on what was effectively new masonry); and they were repeatedly coated with a solution of wax and benzine (hence their shiny “fresh” tones). And that is just what we can document. Bergmann honestly concludes that we will never now be able to reconstruct the Roman appearance of the Dionysiac frieze – though we can be certain that it was significantly different from what we now see. I for one will never look at this frieze in quite the same way again.

Mary Beard is the co-author of The Colosseum, 2005, and Classics: A very short introduction, 1995. Her other books include The Parthenon, 2002, and The Invention of Jane Harrison, 2000.


Villa of the Papyri
Sir, – Mary Beard (September 7) “particularly enjoyed” James Porter’s “debunking of so many of the myths” about the Villa of the Papyri (that it belonged to Piso Caesoninus, the father-in-law of Julius Caesar; that he was a patron of the Epicurean Philodemus; that a Latin library awaits our discovery in the unexcavated parts). Porter for his part cites me as the chief witness for these “romantic” views. The arguments rehearsed by Porter are all well known, and Piso’s ownership remains by far the likeliest hypothesis. The Pisones owned villas in the area; Caesoninus had very close relations with Philodemus; here is a wealthy villa with a gallery of Epicurean statues and a late Republican library that was almost certainly Philodemus’ own (evident not only from its contents, but from its duplicate copies, drafts and rejects). As for what’s left, the few Latin books found amid hundreds of Greek ones were hardly all there was; the eighteenth-century excavators stopped just short of promising rooms, and the recent excavations have revealed more levels below. Yet even if not a single book were to be found, this fabulous villa demands excavation for all kinds of reasons. Even the determinedly unromantic must agree with that.
ROBERT FOWLER Herculaneum Society, Ioannou Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, 66 St Giles, Oxford.