Photographic survey of Pompeii (scale 1:1000) from an hot air balloon, 1910, photograph on 21 rectangular prints. Pompeii Archaeological Park. Photo by Pompeii Archaeological Park

Pompeii: The Proximity of the Past

Massimo Osanna

And given this intention, now that I have come to the end of the work, it seems to me that the only valid justification for the time and study spent on this research resides in those elements of the history of a culture (of a past time that is alive in us), which I have been able to reconstruct or bring to light”.

R. Bianchi Bandinelli, Dal diario di un borghese (Milan: Il Saggiatore, 1962), p. 328.

The Eternal Return.

“Autumn 1876

Pompeii is perhaps the greatest curiosity in the entire world (…). We see it now as it was at the time of its destruction, and the illusion is so great that we find ourselves imagining that we might run into some of its inhabitants (...). The discovery of Pompeii has enabled us to gain a better understanding of the manners and customs of the ancients than reading all the historical works that tell us about them; we can now judge their architecture, their paintings and their art for ourselves, and gain detailed knowledge of their domestic life. So I travelled through this ancient city with the keenest interest and the memory of the visit to Pompeii will never fade in my mind.”

É.A. Sain, Souvenirs d’Italie. Impression de voyage (1879), Italian translation (Venosa: Edizioni Osanna, 2016), pp. 55-56.

“13 mars 1917

Ma chérie, Nous sommes de nouveau à Rome après voyage Naples, d’où Pompéi en auto (…) Le Vésuve fabrique tous les nuages du monde. La mer est bleu marine. Il pousse des jacinthes sur les trottoirs. Pompéi ne m’a pas étonné. J’ai été droit à ma maison. J’avais attendu mille ans sans oser revenir voir ses pauvres décombres. Je t’embrasse. Jean”.

“13 March 1917

My dear, We are once again in Rome after a trip to Naples, and from there to Pompeii by car. (…) Vesuvius crafts all the clouds of the world. The sea is dark blue. Hyacinths hurl themselves on the pavements. Pompeii did not amaze me. I was right at home. I had waited a thousand years not daring to return to see its poor ruins. Love, Jean."

J. Cocteau, Lettres à sa mère, I, 1898-1918 (Paris: Gallimard-Collection Blanche, 1989), p. 306.

Édouard-Alexandre Sain discovered Pompeii for the first time in 1864, and we are informed of his visit by the brief notes devoted to the town in his Souvenirs d'Italie. The vivid impression of the Vesuvian city and the excavations underway inspired his 1865 painting Fouilles à Pompéi in 1865, with a lively excavation scene, "realistically" set in Regio I, where, at that time, Giuseppe Fiorelli was conducting investigations on the House of the Citharist. The tops of the red-painted columns and capitals emerge from the lapilli, assaulted with pickaxes by vigorous bare-chested workers, while the summit of the plateau formed by the volcanic layer is animated by the movement of monumental female figures, workers with solemn gestures, who are about to load the heavy baskets of lapilli onto their heads and carry them away from the site.

We are better informed on the travels of Jean Cocteau, who visited Naples and Pompeii in March 1917 accompanied by Pablo Picasso, Sergej Djagilev and Léonide Massine. The story was recounted in detail through a recent exhibition at the Capodimonte Museum and the Antiquarium of Pompeii1. In addition to the letter, the photos of Picasso and Massine sitting in a house and at a fountain in Via Stabiana, taken by Cocteau himself with a camera he had bought to document his trip to Italy, and the "souvenirs", such as the laurel leaf Picasso picked up to write a dedication to his friend Apollinaire, preserve the memory of an encounter with the ancient city that was to be very fruitful for the whole group and, for Picasso in particular, a solid source of inspiration.

From Sain to Cocteau, the memories of the trip reveal a familiarity with the disinterred city; in the poet's case it was - in his own words - a real homecoming. For Sain, the whole trip to Italy evoked antiquity and a perceived cultural proximity to the classical world: “I have the impression that I am not in an unfamiliar country, but that I am travelling for the second time through places that I have not seen for a long time, but which have never ceased to be present in my memory. It is Pompeii in particular, 'perhaps the greatest curiosity in the entire world', that amazes, becoming indelibly engraved in the memory. Unreservedly, the painter concludes his brief description, drawn from what he has remembered from his travels, by stating that ‘I travelled through this ancient city with the keenest interest and the memory of the visit to Pompeii will never fade in my mind'. Cocteau's eulogy to the poor ruins of the city buried by the eruption speaks of the memory of a journey and the rediscovery of a cultural belonging, of a proximity that disrupts time, with a surreal disorientation. The fascination both men felt stems first and foremost from the extraordinary combination of nature and history that was the hallmark of the Gulf of Naples until the 1950s (we can call to mind the poignant sequences in Rossellini's Journey to Italy, at a time when the tradition of the ‘picturesque' journey through Italy still existed in order "to feed the intellect with intense aesthetic sentiment... in a geography marked by the depth of history"2), before the disastrous assault on the territory that transformed - particularly around ancient Pompeii - one of the most beautiful places in the Mediterranean into a continuum of degradation and ugliness3. In both descriptions, the dominant, omnipresent element is Vesuvius - how could it be otherwise? -, the mountain that welcomes visitors from afar, introduces them to history and accompanies them along the path of re-appropriation of (their own) past4: “Vesuvius crafts all the clouds of the world. The sea is dark blue. Hyacinths hurl themselves on the pavements.” The encounter with Pompeii does not amaze him, claims the poet in the epistolary monologue with his mother in which he describes his impressions of the discovery; the city buried by the eruption, is nothing more than a 'rediscovery', an (eternal) return: "I was right at home. I had waited a thousand years not daring to return to see its poor ruins."

The Rediscovery of Time.

The concept of proximity, whether envisaged in the sense of Sain (with his impression of experiencing for the second time places he had not seen for so long) or in the sense of Cocteau, as a re-discovery, a homecoming, after an absence of thousands of years, represents a good starting point, horizon and destination, for an exhibition which - in a totally new way and for the first time - delivers Pompeii into the arms of the Contemporary, structured and expressed in its multifaceted aspects in the rooms of the MADRE museum. The term proximity is the one that best expresses “the desire - not to say the need - to reaffirm all those relation-based values that the work of art, with the processes linked to it, is able to bring into play, in a re-evaluation of its social, as well as political, meaning and value.”5 This is precisely what we wanted to create through the combination of Pompeii's ancient material culture (which is also modern and contemporary, considering the second life that began with its rediscovery in 1748) - made up of everyday objects, crafts, art expressed in all its materials, from bronze to marble - with the expressions of contemporary art that the Museum hosts: the "relational values" of the ancient object alongside its contemporary counterpart, in a dialogue consisting of references, allusions, ideas, visions and shifting thoughts, that contemplates transtemporal human values. But also relational values between object and human. Museum visitors are often subjected to an inadequate cultural offering due to the inability of the museum curator to communicate an increasingly specialised type of knowledge that is difficult to understand, and to create harmony with a public that is heavily influenced by the information conveyed in the "hierarchy-free" swamp of the Web. Together with Andrea Viliani, we were well aware of the risks of the work we were about to carry out.

Bice Curiger, curator of the 54th Venice Biennale in 2011, included three canvases by Tintoretto in the exhibition as a resource that she said "helps break the linearity of thought and language". Continuing her research at the Kunsthaus Zürich with the exhibition Deftig Barock, where she presented an unprecedented comparison of 18th century and contemporary works, Curiger questioned the legitimacy of interaction between the ancient and the contemporary: “many examples of poor or banal juxtaposition of ancient and modern art had repeatedly discouraged me from taking on such a project. There is, unfortunately, the risk of falling into a series of traps. The trap of simplifying, or of creating juxtapositions that are too obvious... Most of the time, contemporary art is added to a complex of historical works merely as a frivolous note. In Deftig Barock, however, an equivalence of strengths should have predominated for once, without overdoing the mixing of works from different historical periods.”6 This is exactly what we tried to do with Pompeii@Madre, to achieve a balance of strengths, an interaction, made of proximity, relational values, but also contrasts. Without trivialising, belittling, or emptying Pompeii - what a mistake that would be! - and without treating contemporary art as a 'merely frivolous note’.

The first reflection that prompted me, with Andrea Viliani, to think of a "monographic" exhibition of Pompeii at the MADRE, was the perceived proximity and familiarity of Pompeii, with its intense, dramatic, multifaceted double life, and with what it has meant for the modern age and for our fleeting contemporary world. Many have tried - and perhaps rightly so - to point out and underline the gap between the classical world and ourselves; the inescapable caesura that separates us from the experiences of ancient times, devastated and disrupted by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, the arrival of Christianity and the events of medieval Europe. However, notwithstanding the unfathomable distance created by the destruction, stratifications and the encrustations of time, by its divisions and its transformations - whether it be at the hands of nature or humans - the changes in faith, rituals, beliefs, ways of relating to and representing reality, there remains, in my opinion, a disorienting and, at the same time, familiar impression of proximity. An impression we get in Pompeii from all the traces of everyday life which are precluded to us elsewhere. Wolfgang von Goethe, faced for the first time with the houses of the populace of a medium-sized city in ancient Italy, transcending the monolithic image of antiquity conveyed by the majestic ruins of Rome, marvelled at the narrow, cramped spaces of the city, at the small rooms of the houses, “more like architectural models or dolls’ houses than real buildings”: “I went to Pompeii with Tischbein, admiring on the left and the right all of those magnificent sights known today thanks to the landscape artists, and now rendered to us in their splendid array. Pompeii surprises everyone by its compactness and its smallness of scale. The streets are narrow, though straight and provided with pavements, the houses small and windowless - their only light comes from their entrances and open arcades - and even the public buildings, the bench tomb at the town gate, the temple and a villa nearby look more like architectural models or dolls’ houses than real buildings... The mummified city left us with a curious, rather disagreeable impression.”

Nevertheless, the discovery of Pompeii is as exciting as ever. Overcome with amazement at this recaptured everyday life, Goethe exclaims: “Many disasters have befallen the world, but few have brought posterity so much joy.” “I think that it would be difficult to see anything more interesting.”7

Remoteness and Proximity.

The great German thinker derived mixed emotions from the visit, extreme interest, joy, but also a “curious, rather disagreeable impression.” On the one hand, he is gripped by a sense of disorientation and alienation in front of "this mummified city", precisely because of its unique nature, as a place that survived a catastrophe to re-emerge almost fossilised from the lapilli over seventeen centuries later; on the other hand, he has an impression of diversity and non-conformity with the present, due to the distance of the spaces and architecture from his contemporary surroundings. This impression, it should be remembered, was partly due to the situation of the excavations, which had only covered a small portion of the city, pinpointing very little monumental architecture in an excavation that proceeded in a patchwork manner with the constant opening of new construction sites without any planned objectives, as Fiorelli would complain half a century later.8 If, from that visit in 1787, he seems to bring back more an impression of distance than of proximity, it is above all with Fiorelli's "new Pompeii", finally accessible to everyone, systematically reorganised in its excavations and topography, that the impressions that follow will always be more of proximity than of remoteness. New visions follow, animating the reinvention of an imaginary Pompeii, giving rise - in parallel with scientific research - to the recomposition of an ideal world, made up of remembrances and transfers, also as a psychoanalytic metaphor, with short-circuits of time and space, dreamlike or otherwise. Wilhelm Jensen's Gradiva and Sigmund Freud's study of it come to mind.9

Returning to the reasons for the exhibition, and thus to the proximity between Pompeii and our present, which is the underlying concept, this impression is given first and foremost by the extraordinary traces of everyday life that the city has conveyed and continues to convey, as artefacts and data are continuously reclaimed from the earth. Traces of objects and written words from the past, which we instinctively tend to compare with our own activities, with the actions of our daily lives, of our contemporary world. The possibility to walk along the paved streets of a city, on their pavements, to stand in the doorways of houses and peek into the depths of small gardens or large peristyles, lingering at the counters of cauponae, tabernae and craftsmen's workshops, yesterday, which perhaps betrays directly, evokes our familiarity with urban spaces and the liveliness of the Mediterranean streets, which have their very origins in these experiences. On the one hand, our interest is attracted - rightly or wrongly ­- by the possibility of finding a beginning, of giving an origin to our experiences and to how we live. On the other hand, we are fascinated by the possibility of comparing this and discovering traits of affinity with the past that make it possible to bypass time, the gap between today and yesterday, which perhaps betrays the human illusion of continuity in the future. Of the countless travel accounts that can be found in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,10 one in particular is notable, that of Mrs. Ashton J. Yates (Winter in Italy in a Series of Letters to a Friend. London: 1844), highlighted by Giuliana Bruno in her Atlante delle emozioni11: “Though tea may have been unknown at Pompeii, fruits were not; for a dessert found there is laid out, consisting of walnuts and other nuts, prunes or plums, figs and currants... I must not forget, whilst on this subject, to notice a full set of the paste-cutters, such as confectioners of the present day employ in the manufacture of ornamental pastry... We saw a glass-covered table in the middle of the room, which displayed necklaces, pins, bracelets, earrings etc., composed of coloured stones and gold finely wrought, all apparently of the most modern description... We repaired to our jeweller’s to see if he was executing some we had ordered in strict accordance with the antique models we had been examining.”

From street food to jewellery, to a taste for gardens, for Nature, which enters the houses, for those domestic spaces that Goethe saw as insignificant while Le Corbusier, returning from Athens, perceived, in contrast, as a "Mediterranean" model to be imitated,12 the fountains in the streets, the sewage systems, etc., everything brings Pompeii impressively close to us: from a dead city it suddenly becomes very much alive and very modern. Even although some aspects may give the impression of being obsolete, immediately - at least to visitors who, thanks to their generational background, have memories of southern society prior to the technological-computer-digital revolution, or to those who have heard, read, or listened to the customs and traditions of their grandparents' generation, - traits of that "pre-modern" civilisation which, in many areas of Italy, until a few decades ago, was the hallmark of daily life and sociability, come to mind.13 But again, on the subject of proximity think of the impressive modernity of the graffiti engraved in such a pervasive manner on the walls of ancient Pompeii, that a playful scamp (or more than one, since the writing also appears with variations on other walls), adding his message on those engraved walls, as in the inner galleries of the Amphitheatre (CIL IV 2487) writes14:

Admiror te paries non c(ecidisse) qui tot scriptorum taedia sustineas

"I’m amazed, wall, that you have not yet collapsed, since you have to put up with so much nonsense from those who write on you!"

And in the variety of humanity that re-emerges from those bottled messages that have been passed down to us from the 'shipwreck' of an entire city like Pompeii, many of the texts impress us for their proximity and familiarity in that they speak of eternal or rather eternally contemporary themes such as love, friendship, nostalgia, resentment, bravado and sex, expressed in every sense of the term:

Dulcis amor perias eta Taine bene amo dulcissima mea dulc(issima) (CIL IV 8137, from a cubiculum in the house of Fabio Amandio)

“My sweet love, may you burn with passion until you die: Taine, I love you so much, my sweetest, sweetest one."

Hic fuimus cari duo nos sine fine sodales nomina si (quaeris) (CIL IV 8162, from a shop in Regio I,7,8)

"Here we were, two dear lifelong friends; / in case you ask about our names (they would sound like this...)"

Amantes ut apes vita mellita exigunt. Velle (CIL IV 8408a-b, from the peristyle of the House of the Lovers, I, 10,11)

“Like bees, lovers lead a life as sweet as honey. / I would love to!” (two different writers, editor’s note)

(Cum) de(d)uxisti octies tibi superat ut abeasse decies coponium fecisti cretaria fecisti salsamentaria fecisti pistorium fecisti agricola fuiste aere minutaria fecisti propola fuisti laguncularia nunc facis si cunnulinxse eris consummaris omnia (CIL IV 10150, from the back door of the Praedia of Giulia Felice)

"Since you've changed jobs eight times, all you have to do is make it sixteen. You've worked as a cook, you've been a potter, a grocer and a baker, you've been a farmer, you've made bronze junk, you've been a street vendor, now you make mugs. If you had also licked pussy, you would have done just about everything."

Nyphe fututa Amonus fututa Perennis fututu (CIL IV 8897, from a shop front in Regio III, 5, 3)

"Nymph f**ked, Amonus f**ked, Perennis f**ked".

In the urban and domestic spaces, in street language, sarcastic jibes, lewd sexual imagery and poetic or amorous quotations, it is easy to find traits reminiscent of our own civilisation, of our own attitudes, of our own way of thinking about the multifaceted nature of relations with others, often with that slight gap that reassures us of the distance and hence of our supposed evolution in customs and in our humanitas. It is with consternation, for example, that we read that the walls also record the victories and deaths of gladiators, as though progress were a straight line instead of a lurching movement, betrayed by evident, ferocious, continuous persistence, such as the bloody fights in the solipsistic universe of contemporary virtual games and their dramatic drifting in the social obsession with violence.

It is also worth pointing out another aspect, perhaps more revealing given its ability to transcend centuries, interrupting the very flow of time and its historical rifts: that of the materiality of the objects.15 This theme also deserves some reflection. The omnipresence of objects in that remote civilisation and in our own, the variety of materials used (stone, iron, bronze, baked clay, etc.), shapes, decorations, uses and re-uses, make it possible to establish an immediate link between the ancient and the present. First and foremost because the objects bear witness to those lives swept away by the eruption; they were handled, used, broken and thrown away by those who were to be killed by the volcano, by those who managed to escape and left no other evidence of themselves, but also of the generations that preceded them in the historical palimpsest of Pompeii's long urban life. What could be more fascinating and at the same time more disturbing than seeing, counting and reflecting on the objects that the victims took with them in their desperate escape, from simple house keys (in the illusion of being able to return), to coins, good luck charms, or those they had hidden before their escape, such as the silver treasures from the house of Menander or Moregine.16 Objects like relics of the wreckage of the past that are fascinating because of their remote belonging to lives that preceded us, with which they weave a network of relationships, which were dramatically interrupted by a natural catastrophe (how fascinated we are by catastrophes, from those in history that have swallowed up ancient cities and civilisations, from Santorini to Helike, to Pompeii and Herculaneum!).

On the one hand, every object that we know to have been created, manipulated, transformed, broken and reused, and on the other hand the proximity of ancient objects to those of our contemporary times: similar things, similar materials, similar uses and reuses, but also the ease of perceiving some of them as extraordinarily modern in form, design and decorative syntax. How often have we been attracted to a mosaic floor because we feel it is so modern, as though modernity were a category that could be delimited in fixed schemes and not an aesthetic value judgement made a posteriori? Many people have asked me if the floor in the splendid hall of the 'mysteries' in the suburban villa of the same name had been restored, and were amazed to learn that it is original; and this amazement is due not only to the perception of the extraordinary state of conservation of artefacts protected for centuries by lapilli, but first and foremost to their compatibility with our everyday experiences, with our potential decorative choices.

The materiality of objects is what, more than anything else, evokes in us the possibility of stretching Ariadne's thread through the labyrinth of time. As stated by A. Bernard Knapp and Peter van Dommelen in the introduction to the volume Material Connections in the Ancient Mediterranean. Mobility, Materiality and Mediterranean Identities: “the movement of people and objects has always stood at the heart of endeavours to understand the course and processes of human history. In the Mediterranean, evidence of such movements is particularly abundant, and issues like colonialism, migration and exchange have played prominent roles in archaeological, historical and anthropological discussions.”17 By emphasising the materiality of contacts, the investigation of the phenomena of cross-cultural hybridization and connectivity, the book places the material culture of everyday life at the basis of historical discourse. In the wake of an investigation launched in Italy in the 1970s,18 renewed academic attention in antiquity (particularly in the English-speaking world) towards objects, no longer merely in terms of cataloguing and taxonomy, but as a vehicle for exploring how "things" mediate the experience of ancient Mediterranean peoples, and how these relations are defined by long-term collective memories of movements and colonisations, does no more than record and borrow what more recent anthropological research has been reconstructing, starting precisely from the materiality of objects. However, above and beyond the academic approach, be it archaeological or anthropological (whether these two spheres should be separated is another issue), attention to objects and their evocative, performative power, their energy as vehicles of individual and collective memories, is a fact peculiar to our generation more than any other, invaded by the quantity of objects that, from the remote to the most recent past, incessantly pop up in our daily experience (the radical transformations of the territory over recent decades, the end of political and social experiments that has made millions of objects obsolete or reusable... Suffice it to think of the Berlin markets invaded by the items of the decomposing world of the DDR). From his own novel The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk19 went on to create a museum in an old three-storey house in Beyoğlu, in the Çukurcuma district of Istanbul, a permanent exhibition inspired by the events of the book as though they had really happened and as though the characters in the dramatic and singular love story that the novel narrates were real. Standing in front of the display cabinets full of 'real' objects, many visitors wonder whether the person they imagine lived in that house actually existed. The objects - we could say the material culture of Istanbul between the 1960s and 1980s - become the pivot not only to tell the biographical story of the protagonist Kemal and his beloved Füsun, but also to sketch an intimate and social history of Istanbul in those years. The importance of artefacts and exhibiting them, the small everyday affairs of ordinary people, compared to the objects of the great figures of history or those that only featured in the lives of the elites, is vindicated by many, from writers and intellectuals such as Pamuk, in the interests of a re-evaluation of the material culture of Italian archaeology.20 Objects, both yesterday's and today's, become fundamental, in their lasting materiality, because they recount the biography of humans who do not often leave other traces in history: "They were all as timeless as that moment of rescue, perpetuated but forever just occurring, these ornaments, utensils and mementoes, stranded in the Terezín bazaar, objects which for reasons one could never know, had outlived their former owners and survived the process of destruction..."21

The Double Life of Pompeii22.

The exhibition not only focuses on ancient objects and materials, relocating them in the new contemporary context (with an operation that decontextualises them from their ancient associations and collocations, giving them a new meaning that stems from these contemporary interactions and connections). A central section on the methodology (or, if we consider an exhibition as an organism, we could call it the nerve centre) of the entire itinerary is dedicated to the documentation, the excavation, and the various aspects of the life that was reborn in the Vesuvian city when it was rediscovered: the double life of Pompeii. So the path is retraced starting from the exhibition Pompeii and Europe. 1748-194323 set up by the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and the Amphitheatre of Pompeii, the extraordinary story of the second life of the city buried by the eruption, reflecting not so much on the fate of Pompeii's image in modern and contemporary art as on the reality of the archaeological excavation, the documentation and the management of a complex site that marked the start of European archaeological research and gave rise to many experiments, which were then extended also to the Italian heritage. It is no coincidence that the first Superintendent of the Unification of Italy, Giuseppe Fiorelli, was the first to be appointed Director General of Italian Antiquities and Fine Arts in Rome in 187524.

And in the second life of Pompeii, Fiorelli cannot but be considered the keystone towards the modernisation and organisation of what was by then the most important archaeological site in Italy. And that’s not all. I like to learn from his own words the extraordinary effort he made, at the dawn of the new Kingdom of Italy, when Pompeii became an Archaeological Park for the first time, fenced off and freely accessible by ticket (and no longer by courtesy of the royal house)25: "(...) it clearly appears that my predecessors, devoid of any scientific concept, drifted in the choice of the places to be brought to light, and that the only purpose of their research was to find a greater copy of ancient objects. It seemed to me that I had to take a different approach in discovering the buried city. Since the area enclosed by the boundary wall is divided into nine segments by two cardines and two decumanus, which intersect leading to the gates, I thought it would be useful to excavate each of these segments successively, and complete the clearing, before moving on to look for adjacent sites, only in this way would it be possible to obtain the continuity of the uncovered buildings, and avoid the accumulation of land in between. I therefore set about destroying the mounds of pumice and ashes that had been scattered throughout the previous digs, and to complete the discovery of certain buildings that had remained partially unexplored because they were thought to be of little use in objects of some importance. During this thankless task that lasted twelve years, although I may not have found many precious monuments, I was able to observe on several occasions the different ways in which the Pompeians perished (...).”

On the one hand, Fiorelli rationalised the excavations and developed a more scientific and systematic method of approach to the ruins and the stratigraphy of the eruption, and on the other he systematised what had been discovered, from every perspective, starting with the "cadastral" one: “In assigning an order number to these nine segments, on the basis of their position, in relation to the two cardines and the two decumanus of the city, I thought that the first should be considered the one placed to the right of the primary cardine, and the second the other, coming after towards the east; due to the fact that the towers were numbered in the same way by the Samnites, which from time to time can be seen leaning against the boundary wall, and in an almost similar way the Regiones were ordered within the Rome of Augustus. And yet, continuing with the same progression, the last or ninth of these segments, which, according to the classic nomenclature, I will better call Regiones, was precisely that of the centre, determined by the double intersection of the two cardines and the two decumanus. Having adopted this fundamental scheme for the Regiones, I moved on to organise the groups of houses existing in each of them, which the ancients called Insulae, because they were isolated from the streets or alleys to which they were connected. To these Insulae, which differed in quantity according to the size of the Regiones, I also gave a progressive number, beginning with those discovered first; and with numbers I also indicated the dwellings and shops contained therein, in order to maintain scientific reliability, and to avoid errors arising from an incorrect system of nomenclature, which reached its peak with the romantic consecration of the Villa of Diomedes. However, having rejected arbitrary names, and considering only those that arose spontaneously from the seals, or were found in the painted or stylised epigraphs, in all other cases I adhered to the simple topographical indication as that most suitable for recognising and designating the monuments.”

As the history of Pompeian archaeology and its protagonists teaches us, Fiorelli imprints a new image on the ruins of Pompeii, which was destined to influence its second life up to the present day. Think of the aforementioned 'stacking' of Pompeii, its reorganisation of space that is still in operation today, but consider above all the extraordinary 'invention' of the casts of the victims. He applied a technique that had, up until that point, only been used to give form to wooden furnishings and fixtures to make casts of human bodies, when he realised that when the void left by decomposed organic substances was filled with plaster, it could extract the shape of decomposed bodies from the earth, restoring the gestures and pose of the dramatic conclusion of the fugitives' biographical story at the moment of death. The first four casts were made, all within a few days, in the first week of February 1863.26 From then on, all those responsible for excavating Pompeii, up to our generation, have taken on the task of making casts, wherever the eruptive stratigraphy allowed it (as we know, it is in the cineritic layers deposited by the pyroclastic flows above the lapilli and not within the lapilli themselves that the body prints were preserved).27 Among these, the most successful experiments were undoubtedly those of Vittorio Spinazzola and Amedeo Maiuri, the protagonist of the excavation of the so-called Garden of the Fugitives, whose discoveries are immortalised in an unforgettable scene of Rossellini's Journey to Italy, already referred to above, where the superintendent himself makes a cameo appearance.28

After Fiorelli it was Maiuri's turn to radically change the face of the Vesuvian city - a new era, 1923-61 - a new image that would be indelibly imprinted on Pompeii.29 With his extensive excavations and simultaneous restoration, reconstruction and promotion activities, the indefatigable superintendent was to hand down to our generation a completely different Pompeii from the one he had inherited from Vittorio Spinazzola (who had certainly not lacked initiative, and had taken a considered and conscientious approach to the digs and the ruins). Maiuri's interest in restoration, which had developed through practice and in the field during his ten-year stay in Greece in the Dodecanese islands, involves two parallel lines: on the one hand partial, or total (in the domus whose frescoes and mosaics were to be protected) reconstructive restoration, with respective re-arrangement of artefacts, as the key to making the volumes and forms of ancient architecture legible to the public; on the other hand, an ethical sense of protection to be pursued as an indispensable instrument for the conservation and enjoyment of the site. The reflection on heritage as a public good to be opened with a policy of active use becomes, with Maiuri, the key to a correct approach to the past.30 And it is precisely his vision concerning the aspects of public use that has become part of the collective imagination of contemporary Pompeii. Significantly, many of these interventions remain in the fabric of the ancient city that can be visited today, although their 'authorship' has often been lost. The reason for this phenomenon is, I believe, twofold. In the first post-Maiuri decades, a certain respect for the master's work must have been at the basis of the meticulous preservation of what had been created, even though this subsequently led to an accumulation, often without criterion. New materials were piled up in the same spaces, adding disorder to the original rigorous order. In more recent times, however, there had simply been a lack of interest in redefining spaces and contexts for public use, i.e. the lack of a plan for the promotion/musealisation of the site. The activities focused on other aspects of management, causing Maiuri's works to fossilise in an eternal present, becoming dustier year after year, and transforming the original installations - by subtraction or addition - until they became unrecognisable. From the emphatically visible places, such as the so-called Granaries overlooking the Forum, to the places hidden from visitors, such as the storerooms of the Sarno Baths, Maiuri's hand has remained visible until today, whereas later additions, in particular dozens and dozens of boxes with "potsherds" from stratigraphic excavations, have ended up distorting the initial meaning of his displays, originally very evocative in their skilful display of artefacts. Even in the houses, his musealisation works have been progressively watered down, by subtraction, where statues and artefacts have been progressively removed from their contexts for security reasons and kept permanently out of sight, closed in storage.

Pompeii has been approached, as we have seen, with different methods and ideas over the centuries, and the various generations that have managed its extraordinary heritage have constantly transformed its image. Some historical eras have been more revolutionary than others, the various exponents being either traditionalists or reformists, but undoubtedly the two most important figures, true giants on whose shoulders Pompeii has rested for the generations that followed, were Giuseppe Fiorelli (1863-75) and Amedeo Maiuri (1923-61).

Pompeii Today.

The current era, our Pompeian contemporary, can be said to have opened with the collapse of the Schola Armaturarum in 2010, which heralded a more or less significant series of collapses of walls and roofs, and fresh media attention to Pompeii, making clear to the whole world the critical state of much of the archaeological area. The case of the Vesuvian city was used and abused to publicise the sorry plight of the management of our immense cultural heritage. It was in this climate, amidst the ups and downs and commitments of various ministries (and related in-house companies, such as Invitalia) and institutions, that the Great Pompeii Project was developed. The project was launched in 2012 but entered into full swing in 2014, and maintained the pace until today, thanks to a significant change in governance that assigned General Giovanni Nistri to work in the Vesuvian city as Commander-General of the GPP (Great Pompeii Project). Opposed and criticised on almost all sides in the early years (partly out of prejudice and partly because it was unjustifiably equated with the previous commissionerships, who were - in actual fact - very different from one another in every respect), the Great Project brought together different forces and skills, motivated by the common goal of doing things well and doing them quickly…31 I think we can now say, without reservation, that thanks to this extraordinary project, far-reaching works have been undertaken for the conservation and safeguarding of Pompeii, solving many problems that had never been tackled in the past (e.g. the project to mitigate hydrogeological instability and that to consolidate the excavation fronts), making a large part of the archaeological area safe, restoring and reopening entire areas, with dozens of buildings and roads that had been denied to the public for so long, too long, and - something not to be taken for granted - commencing a planned maintenance scheme, something that had been totally absent from the Pompeian scene in recent years. These new, widespread interventions, extended for the first time to the entire city, have radically changed the image of Pompeii, eliminating the perception of degradation and pervasive precariousness that had characterised the more recent past. The change is thanks to an interdisciplinary team of officials and professionals who have cooperated to "save" Pompeii: this reflection has led to a profoundly different concept of safety measures and maintenance. There has been a shift, from purely operational site practices lacking a procedural vision - as was the case during the fairly positive times of Maiuri, fondly remembered thanks to the presence on the staff of numerous workers, blacksmiths, carpenters, mosaic artists, etc. - towards organisational, study and control procedures to be implemented before, during and after the phases strictly dedicated to implementation. In these terms, maintenance has established itself as a permanent "project worksite," an activity with a high cultural content, characterised by a constant analytical and design approach (inspection activity, implementation phase, critical synthesis).

But the Pompeii of the Great Project has not only been about safety and maintenance, it has been about an ambitious programme, structured in six plans (safety, works, knowledge, capacity building, communication and public use) that has concerned all the crucial aspects that a complex site such as Pompeii presents. On the one hand, the precise restoration of numerous domus, with their mosaics, frescoes and stuccoes, with the aim of reopening them to the public, and the management of the site’s hydro-geological structure, while on the other, special attention to the enjoyment of the site, with the development of new routes, including one for the disabled, and the definition of communication and dissemination systems. In particular, the Knowledge Plan, a huge computer archive, a fundamental tool - technologically very advanced - for the systematic and continuous monitoring of the site.

Contemporary Pompeii is heir to the epic feats of its long second life. Since its discovery in 1748, the Vesuvian city has been a field of experimentation and excellence for archaeology and the other branches of learning involved in the research, conservation, surveying and protection of the site throughout the history of the excavations, now over 250 years long. Today, aware that conservation and public enjoyment stem from a precise and thorough knowledge of the context and the historical palimpsest stratified in the subsoil, the Archaeological Park has been designed as an authentic institute for the research, protection and promotion of the heritage. The focus on research has taken the form, in particular, of the launch of an ambitious project concerning Pompeian sanctuaries and public places. In fact, the study of Pompeii's places of worship, walls and forum is back in the spotlight thanks to an agreement signed by the Archaeological Superintendency of Pompeii with a group of Universities and Institutions to resume research in the field, starting with past excavations - often still unpublished - and with the aim of returning to investigate the soil.32

During the years of the Great Pompeii Project, the ancient city has once again been brought back to life to safeguard and transmit this masterpiece of human history, which is profoundly linked to life, to its immanence, and to its tragic, frightful end...

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby).


1. Picasso and Naples: Parade, exh. cat. (Naples, Capodimonte Museum and Antiquarium of Pompeii, 8 April-10 July 2017), eds S. Bellenger, L. Gallo (Milan: Electa, 2017).

2. G. Bruno, Atlante delle emozioni. In viaggio fra arte, architettura e cinema (Monza: Johan & Levi Editore, 2015), pp. 447-49.

3. L. Gallo, “Per una storia del paesaggio culturale: Pompei”, in Pompei e l’Europa. 1748-1943, conference proceedings, eds M. Osanna, R. Cioffi, A. Di Benedetto, L. Gallo (Milan: Electa, 2016), pp. 108-18.

4. The Marquis de Sade's impression is emblematic: “Naples’ surroundings are the most beautiful in the world. The destruction and the chaos of the volcano drive our souls to imitate nature's criminal hand” (F. de Sade, “Juliette, ovvero la prosperità del vizio”, in Opere scelte, Italian translation. Milan: Feltrinelli, 1962). But read what Madame de Staël writes: “The volcanic air you breathe in the place are bound to produce ferocity when passions are aroused... the phenomenon of Vesuvius makes the heart really beat" (G. de Staël, Corinna o l'Italia, Italian translation. Florence: Casini, 1967, pp. 285, 287).

5. B. Pietromarchi, “Rimettere al centro la cura dell’artista. Il futuro dei musei d’arte contemporanea in un’epoca di crisi”, in Discorsi d’attualità. Dal “postmoderno” ai nuovi orizzonti della cultura, ed. Ch. Riedweg (Rome: 2013), pp. 52-53.

6. B. Curiger, “L’arte come manifesto del precariamente vitale”, in Discorsi d’attualità, op. cit., p. 28.

7. J.W. Goethe, Viaggio in Italia: 1786- 1788, Italian translation (Florence: Sansoni, 1980), pp. 191-93, 203-05.

8. G. Fiorelli, Descrizione di Pompei (Naples: Tipografia Italiana, 1875), pp. 23-25.

9. W. Jensen, S. Freud, Gradiva (Pordenone: Edizioni Studio Tesi, 1992).

10. G. Bruno, op. cit., pp. 442-70.

11. Ibid., pp. 443-44.

12. L. Gallo, “Des réalités d’autrefois et un cratère plein de mystère par-dessus“. Architetti francesi a Pompei, in Pompei e l’Europa. 1748-1943, exh. cat. (Naples, National Archaeological Museum - Pompeii, Amphitheatre, 27 May - 2 November 2015), eds M. Osanna, M.T. Caracciolo, L. Gallo (Milan: Electa, 2015), pp. 345-46, 350-51.

13. Cf. E. De Martino, Sud e magia (Milan: Feltrinelli, 1959).

14. V. Hunink, Felice è questo luogo! 1000 graffiti pompeiani, Italian translation (Sant’Oreste, Rome: Apeiron Editori, 2013) from which the graffiti and their respective translations, with some variants, were selected.

15. U. Fabietti, Materia sacra. Corpi, oggetti, immagini, feticci nella pratica religiosa (Milan: Raffaello Cortina editore, 2015).

16. Storie da un’eruzione. Pompei, Ercolano, Oplontis, exh. cat. (Naples, National Archaeological Museum, 20 March - 31 August), eds A. D’Ambrosio, P.G. Guzzo, M. Mastroroberto.

17. A.B. Knapp, P. van Dommelen, Material Connections in the Ancient Mediterranean. Mobility, Materiality and Mediterranean Identities (London-New York: Routledge, 2010).

18. Cf. A. Carandini, Archeologia e cultura materiale. Lavori senza gloria nell’antichità classica (Bari: De Donato, 1975, reprinted in 1979).

19. The novel: O. Pamuk, Il museo dell’innocenza, Italian translation (Turin: Einaudi, 2009); the Museum catalogue: O. Pamuk, L’innocenza degli oggetti. Il Museo dell’Innocenza, Istanbul, Italian translation (Turin: Einaudi, 2012).

20. Cf. A. Carandini, Archeologia classica. Vedere il tempo antico con occhi del 2000 (Turin: Einaudi, 2008).

21. W.G. Sebald, Austerlitz, Italian translation (Milan: Adelphi, 2006), p. 213

22. The expression was coined by B. Robert-Boissier (Pompéi. Les doubles vies de la cité du Vésuve. Paris: 2011).

23. Pompeii and Europe, op. cit.

24. B. Robert-Boissier, op. cit., pp. 112-42, with bibliography.

25. G. Fiorelli, op. cit., pp. 23-25.

26. M. Osanna, “’Rapiti alla morte’: i primi calchi delle vittime di Pompei realizzati da Giuseppe Fiorelli”, in Pompei e l’Europa, op. cit., pp. 229-38

27. E. Lazer, Resurrecting Pompeii (London-New York: Routledge, 2009), pp. 84-91.

28. G. Bruno, op. cit., p. 466: “Pompeii shows life in freeze frame. It shows that archaeology was filmic even before cinema took over its function (...) by ‘casting’ live motion and exhibiting the (e)motions of everyday life. In Pompeii, as in film, bodies are caught dead in the act of living... The man Katherine watches being uncovered lies near a woman. Two people just as they were thousand years ago found death together. Perhaps they are husband and wife. Katherine is moved. She bursts into tears. She feels her own volcanic eruption. In the landscape of a ruinous city, she has reached the bottom of her archaeological excavation.”

29. A. Maiuri, Mestiere d’archeologo. Antologia di scritti di Amedeo Maiuri, ed. C. Belli (Milan: Garzanti/Scheiwiller, 1978).

30. M. Osanna, “Amedeo Maiuri a Pompei, tra scavi, restauri e musealizzazione”, in Ercolano:1927-1961, eds D. Camardo, M. Notomista, “Studi e ricerche del Parco Archeologico di Pompei” (Rome: 2017), pp. 159-78, with references.

31. G. Nistri, M. Osanna, “Valorizzare e proteggere i parchi archeologici: il caso Pompei”, in Un Capolavoro chiamato Italia. Racconto a più voci di un patrimonio da tutelare, proteggere, valorizzare, ed. C.A. Brioschi (Milan: 2014), pp. 99-116.

32. I pompeiani e i loro dei. Culti, rituali e funzioni sociali a Pompei, eds E. Lippolis, M. Osanna, “Scienze dell’Antichità” (22 March 2016). On earlier research a recent development in P.G. Guzzo, Storia e Paesaggi della città antica, (Milan: Electa, 2007).