The discovery of Pompei and Herculaneum

Hélène Eristov (translation Delphine Burlot, Nathaniel Deines and Julia Schelling)

During the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D., Herculaneum was buried under mudflows and Pompeii was buried under up to three meters of pumice stones (lapilli).  Despite a letter from Pliny the Younger describing the eruption (in which his uncle, Pliny the Elder, died), and occasional explorations of the area during the 16th and 17th centuries, these cities nearly sank into oblivion.

Then, in 1710, a number of marble statues (depicting the Herculanean Women) were fortuitously unearthed during the digging of a well on the lands of the Duke of Elbeuf, which he then smuggled out to Vienna. Shortly afterwards the city government of Naples forbade any further excavations. This prohibition held until 1738, when it was violated accidentally by Charles III of Bourbon, king of Naples (1735-1759). Wishing to erect a new palace in Portici, Charles III bought Elbeuf’s land and began construction, by chance, on the location of Herculaneum theatre, bringing to light an inscription bearing the name of the ancient city.

The political climate at that time made the find especially favorable to Charles III, who decided to capitalize on the discovery of the antique bronzes and marbles in an attempt to draw all of Europe’s attention to the city of Naples. During the succession wars of the 17th century, the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies had been tossed around between Austria and Spain, and Naples was still a provincial city. King Charles wished to raise Naples to the rank of great Europe cities but this effort was not without resistance, trial, and error. In order to prevent the exploitation of the antiquities by anyone but himself, Charles III immediately established a system of protection. His son, Ferdinand IV, continued his father’s policy during his own reign. Thus, until 1813, access to the excavations and to the Portici Museum was severely restricted, and those who were granted access were not permitted to take notes or sketch.

In Herculaneum, the solidified mudflows (Tuff stone) made the excavation difficult and military engineers were quickly appointed to its supervision. One of the appointed engineers was Roque Joaquin de Alcubierre of Spain, who had so little knowledge of antiquities that Johann Joachim Winckelmann said of him, “He knows as much about antiquities as the moon knows about lobsters.” De Alcubierre’s assistants Carl Weber and, later, Francesco La Vega were more educated and drew the first maps of the site, however incomplete. Despite their education, their practices were closer to looting than to scientific exploration. This fact was mainly due to tensions among the engineers and to the invasive excavation techniques, which consisted of digging access wells to the underground galleries (cunicoli, still visible today), and going through walls in order to find the objects, sculptures, and wall paintings more quickly. Galleries were then filled back up as the diggers move forward, resulting in lost diggers excavating the same gallery several times.

Undeterred by these difficulties, research efforts were expanded. In April 1748, Alcubierre suggested that digging begin in Cività, thinking that it was actually Stabiae, and which wouldn’t be identified as Pompeii until 1763. The first excavations revealed part of the amphitheater and efforts were then directed towards the Via dei sepolcri where the “Villa of Cicero” was eventually discovered. Efforts had to be stopped regularly due to the release of volcanic gas (mofeta). The exploration of Gragnano (Stabiae) began in June 1749, and at times excavations were conducted simultaneously in three different locations. These concurrent efforts were more economical, but brought confusion into the provenance of the objects.

At every site small figures and ornaments worthy of display in the Museum of Portici were removed from the painted walls. Sometimes the whole decoration was copied before being cut up, but not all of the painted fragments were drawn and subsequently published in the Antichità di Ercolano (8 vol., 1757-1792).