La Fortuna Visiva di Pompei
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The idea: the Visual Fortune of Pompeii

The first remains of Pompeii were found by the abbot Giacomo Martorelli in 1748, during the reign of Charles de Bourbon. Martorelli was looking for the ruins of the ancient Stabiae together with the military engineer  Roque de Alcubierre. In that year, they started an excavation in the area of Civita, more precisely where the roads of Stabia and Nola were crossing. Shortly after, the structures of the Amphitheatre and the necropolis of Porta Ercolano were discovered.

Some years later, in 1754, the excavations restarted and brought into light the Villa of Cicero and the Praedia of Julia Felix.

Finally, in 1763, the inscription of Titus Suedius Clemens, where the "Res Publica Pompeianorum" is mentioned, came out from the necropolis of Porta Ercolano. Thanks to this inscription, it was possible to identify the excavated site with the ancient Pompeii, the city covered by the ashes of Vesuvius in 79 a.C., as described by Plinius.

Thenceforth, the excavations were carried out rapidly under the patronage of Ferdinand IV and of his wife, Maria Carolina. Pompeii became a mine, where thousands of archaeological masterpieces where continuously found and destined to the Museum of Portici. The ancient city was strictly guarded as a precious treasure, and it was possible to visit it only with a special authorization.

The Bourbon guards, which are often represented in the views dated in the so-called "First Bourbon period", symbolize not only the ownership of the archaeological site and the merit of the Bourbons, but also, and mainly, the restrictions which limited the authorizations for visiting Pompeii and prohibited to execute drawings and measurements.

Nevertheless, many erudites and scholars visited Pompeii. Some of them succeeded in representing its monuments after some sketches or appoints rapidly taken on the sly, which were the basis for realizing engravings that was printed and diffused for all over the Europe. This contributed in increasing the interest for the ancient Pompeii and in building up its "image", which was more or less mythologized and admired.

In 1777 it was published the report on the discoveries of Pompeii which had been presented two years before to the Society of Antiquaries by the famous English ambassador in Naples, Sir William Hamilton. This opera was illustrated with the first edited representations of the monuments of Pompeii, executed by Basire: the world of erudites was at last able to view the Palestra Grande; the Quadriporticus of the Theatres, where some human skeletons, armours and inscriptions were found, bringing into life, through the worlds of Hamilton, the ancient roman soldiers; the Doric Temple found behind a vineyard; the Temple of Isis, with its wonderful treasures brought to the Museum of Portici; the majestic Porta Ercolano; via Consolare with its shops and via dei Sepolcri, with its prestigious funerary monuments, as well as the private houses, enriched by magnificent paintings.

Even if he had to complain about the prohibition to execute drawings and measurements, in the second volume of his Voyage pittoresque, edited in 1782, Saint Non succeeded in publishing seventeen tables dedicated to Pompeii, which were realized on the basis of the drawings made by Desprez and Renard. The tables illustrated, with elegant engravings, the Quadriporticus of the Theatres, the Temple of Isis, Porta Ercolano, the Villa of Diomedes and the Tomb of the Istacidii, by alternating plans, views and precise prospectuses of architectural elements and archaeological objects, up to the evocative fantastic reconstructions of the Temple of Isis, populated with ancient roman figures celebrating a sacrifice, and of the Quadriporticus of the Theatres, animated by a military parade.

The image of Pompeii, as it was communicated in the opulent editions programmed by the Bourbon Royal House, certainly appeared very different: less evocative and more realistic and flat. Technical representations of paintings and mosaics completely isolated from their architectural context and plans of buildings, were engraved on the basis of original drawings illustrating the excavation reports, now preserved in the Bourbon Archive of the Superintendency in Naples, executed by an équipe of drawers.

In 1798 the general Championnet marched on Naples, and the Partenopean Republic was declared. It was the beginning of a new age, that was reflected into a new image of Pompeii. The ancient city was finally illustrated with the approach of a scholar of archaeology and architecture, in the tables of the opera signed by Mazois and funded by Carolina Murat. It is the first systematic opera treating about the urban architecture of Pompeii. The overall appearance of the entire city is here described through plans, prospectuses and realistic views, engraved on the basis of the drawings and reliefs carried out by Mazois between 1809 and 1813.

In 1815, after the Congress of Vienna, the "Second Bourbon period" started with the return of Ferdinand de Bourbon on the throne of Naples. In Pompeii, the buildings of the Civil Forum and the areas of the theatres and of Porta Ercolano were restored. The successor on the throne Francis I, gave a new impulse to the excavations: starting from 1820, the Regio VI was investigated, and wonderful private houses came into light.

The attention moved from public monuments to private buildings and, consequently, to the magnificence of the Pompeian paintings and mosaics. In particular, the discovery of the famous House of the Faun (Casa del Fauno) in 1830 caused a stir: there, the mosaic of Alexander the Great was found.

Antonio Niccolini dedicated an entire monograph to the mosaic of Alexander: he had the responsibility for the detachment of the mosaic and for its transportation to Naples.

The renewed image of Pompeii was communicated through the opera edited in two volumes by Gell and Gandy in 1815. Gell documented the recent discoveries using the Wollaston Prism, a camera lucida that aided in the execution of a precise topographic relief.

Even the style of representation changed in this period: the contour line was more and more used, differing from the chiaroscuros and the deep shadings which previously characterized, for instance, the artistic and impressive representations by Piranesi. The use of colour filling also became much more used, thus showing a clear documentary purpose, which is well expressed in the opera edited by Fausto, Felice and Antonio Niccolini in 1854, centred on the new object of the public interest: the private houses of Pompeii.

In 1860 the Italian unification inaugurated a new period, during which the name of Pompeii was associated with the name of the famous archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli. The XX century was close by, and the rediscovered Pompeii approached the new era, portrayed in the first photographs illustrating the detailed reconstruction of the findings of the Pompeian antiquities made by Fiorelli.

The contemporary graphic documentation, realized in the manner of the architectural relief, became a support for the studies of numerous young architects and archaeologists, which used to spend a period in Pompeii to improve their own education, and used to reproduce the vesuvian antiquities in drawings and watercolours executed with accuracy and attention to every particular.

After this synthesis, we can affirm that the image of Pompeii is multifaceted: it varies depending of how the ancient city was represented. Its representation varies depending of the different periods and purposes of people who made it. Hence, the image of Pompeii varies depending of how it was perceived.

If on one side the perception of one object is not identified with the object itself, on the other side it is clear that such a perception is nevertheless very important to explain the inter-relation between the object and the external reality, as it attributes to the object a value, that can be positive or negative, true or false.

When the perception of a single person is transposed into a representation, it becomes interpretation. When a given subject doesn't come in direct contact with a given object, his perception of the object is mediated and influenced by the various interpretations (representations) of the object, that tributes some given values to the object itself. The same phenomenon happens, even if more mildly, even when the subject has a direct contact with the object.

In the specific case of Pompeii, the value which today we attribute to this ancient city does not correspond with the objective value of its antiquities, which are merely archaeological finds magnificently preserved, but it is strongly increased by the multiple meanings and information attributed to its ruins. Such added values are determined by the summa of the various perceptions and interpretations accumulated on Pompeii during the years, that is what today influences our personal perception of Pompeii and its monuments.

In conclusion, when we think about Pompeii we don't have in our minds merely its ruins as they appear to us today but, at the same time, we take into consideration a cultural inheritance composed by the manners in which Pompeii has been seen from different people in different times.

The main objective of the project "The visual Fortune of Pompeii" is the analysis of the various interpretations and representations of Pompeii, starting from its discovery until the beginning of the XX century, the study of the various images of Pompeii, hence of its various perceptions, and the critical reconstruction, through this process, of the cultural identity currently assumed by the ancient city fallen asleep by the eruption of the Vesuvius in 79 a.C. and awakened in 1748 by Martorelli.


-- Maria Emilia Masci --