Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2003.03.30

Filippo Coarelli (ed.), Pompeii. Translated by Patricia A. Cockram.   New York:  Riverside Book Company, 2002.  Pp. 408; profusely illustrated.  ISBN 1-878351-59-1.  $100.00.  

Contributors: Emidio De Albentiis, Maria Paola Guidobaldi, Fabrizio Pesando, Antonio Varone


Reviewed by Larry Richardson, Duke University
Word count: 2813 words

We have long been awaiting a replacement for Mau-Kelsey's Pompeii: Its Life and Art, now more than a century old, a succinct and authoritative account of the results of the excavations of Pompeii and their importance to our understanding of ancient Roman life and literature. Unfortunately this oversize book is not that, although the authors clearly had something of the sort in mind. It includes a sketch of the history of excavations, a brief account of what is known of the history of the city in antiquity, and surveys of the public buildings and private houses. But there are serious omissions. There is no account of the water supply, no discussion of styles of masonry and building techniques and technology, no analysis of the Pompeian house and house types, no mention more than casual of furniture and tableware, and, most serious of all, no attempt to define, describe, or date more than roughly the various styles of Pompeian decoration. For all this the reader must look elsewhere.

The text is the work of five collaborators under the editorship of Filippo Coarelli. Although the other four all have some claim to experience in Pompeian archaeology, the initial chapters are all the work of Professor Coarelli himself, essentially a novice. These amount to slightly more than a quarter of the whole and cover the history of excavations, the ancient history of Pompeii, the city plan and its development and organization, the fortifications, the forum and its surrounding buildings, and the major temples, including that of Bacchus at Sant'Abbondio and the recently discovered sanctuary of Fondo Iazzino. The second division of the book is taken up with the economy of the city and its better attested industries, its social life and amusements, the baths, theatres and amphitheatre, and the one well attested brothel, all but the last the work of Emidio De Albentiis, while the last is by Antonio Varone. The second half of the book is devoted to the private houses and villas grouped according to what the authors consider their chief period of decoration. Thus the first Pompeian style is represented by the House of the Surgeon, the House of the Faun, and the House of Epidius Rufus, the second style by the House of the Labyrinth, House of the Silver Wedding, and House of the Cryptoporticus together with the House of the Trojan Sacellum, the third style by the House of Julius Polybius and House of Lucretius Fronto, and the fourth style by the Houses of Meleager, Apollo, the Tragic Poet, the Vettii, and Menander, the Insulae of Julia Felix and of the Chaste Lovers, to which are appended descriptions of the Villa of the Mysteries and Villa of Poppaea at Oplontis. The accounts of the houses are the work of Maria Paola Guidobaldi (Surgeon, Silver Wedding, Lucretius Fronto, Meleager, Apollo, Tragic Poet, and Julia Felix), Fabrizio Pesando (Faun, Epidius Rufus, Labyrinth, Cryptoporticus, Julius Polybius, and Vettii), and Antonio Varone (Menander, Chaste Lovers, Villa of the Mysteries and Villa of Poppaea). The text concludes with a brief look at Pompeian tombs, confined almost entirely to a few examples from the necropoleis of the Herculanean Gate and Nucerian Gate by De Albentiis. This is followed by a glossary and selective bibliography grouped according to the chapters of the text.

It is difficult to say which has served the reader worse, the authors or the translator. The text is marred on almost every page by inaccuracy, indefensible generalization, mistranslation, damaging omission, and error. The mistranslations are often ludicrous; the translator not only knows nothing about Pompeii and Pompeian archaeology, but nothing about history, and not a single sentence has been checked for error. Thus in the first few pages one learns that on 16 August 1763 T. Suedius Clemens discovered the inscription for reclaiming public land for the municipality from abusive builders that in actuality he was responsible for setting up (p. 16; the information is given correctly on p. 52). On p, 19 one finds the "Catilene Conspiracy" and is told that the older, precolonial population took an active part in this, revisionist history for which it would be hard to find any substantial evidence. On the same page we are told that Sulla occupied Pompeii in the Social War and that the colony sent there after the war was a military colony. To whom should we ascribe such misstatements? Campania is throughout used as an adjective, and Nuceria is called Nucera. On p. 22 Cassius Dio appears as Dionysius Cassius. In a book of this character and price such slovenliness is inexcusable.

Professor Coarelli must accept responsibility for other defects. In discussing the growth of the city he accepts von Gerkan's theory of an Altstadt, a theory long since discredited by the results of excavations along the west front of the site. Moreover, he ignores or reinterprets to suit himself the work of such serious and scrupulous Pompeianists as Paul Arthur and Maria Bonghi Iovino. For him the city already extended north to include Regio VI within the circuit of its fortifications in the sixth century B.C. (at that time he believes the fortifications were of pappamonte tufa, although no remains of these survive in the area). The forum was laid out with an axis focussed on the summit of Vesuvius, which was regarded as the seat of Jupiter (p. 39). But the ash cone that dominates the view today is of relatively recent formation, and, to judge from Strabo's description of the mountain in the time of Augustus (5.4.8, C 147), it did not appear at all as it does today. Vulcanologists tell us that it was Monte Somma that erupted in A.D. 79. Moreover, there is no evidence that suggests that Jupiter was so venerated in precolonial Pompeii; the patron divinity, so far as we know, was always Venus.

Professor Coarelli is fond of untested ideas, and one finds a full complement of these here. The tribunal of the basilica was theatrical in design, inspired by Greek models, with a Corinthian order below surmounted by an Ionic one above (p. 67). Not only do I know of no such stage architecture in any Greek theatre, but the evidence for the upper order is meagre and questionable. On p. 69 we learn that the temple of Jupiter was "a large tuscanic temple." One wonders what features Coarelli had in mind; certainly there is nothing in Vitruvius' prescriptions for a tuscanic temple that would warrant this, other than that it was frontal. Even more surprising is the notion that the Building of Eumachia was the slave market of Pompeii (p. 71). As Coarelli presents this idea, the evidence seems to be chiefly the Satyricon of Petronius. Later the idea is elaborated by De Albentiis (pp. 131-33), where he is impressed by the limited accessibility of the cryptoporticus and the possibility that the large windows might have been filled with grating. Apparently he thinks the slaves for sale were kept like caged animals and had to be locked up. But the Romans were never good at the design of access in architecture of this sort; consider, for example, the Mercati di Traiano in Rome. Given the emphatic allusions in the building to the Forum Augustum and Porticus Liviae in Rome, this seems a particularly unfortunate flight of fancy.

Scarcely more defensible seems Coarelli's identification of the well surrounded by a monopteros in the Foro Triangolare as oracular, the evidence being a fancied similarity to the tholos of the terrace of hemicycles of the temple of Fortuna Primigenia at Palestrina. In fact, his whole account of this enigmatic area is a confection of dubious acceptability. Hercules' presence is proved by the hypothetical representation of the hydra in terracotta in the pediment of the temple, Minerva's, on the other hand, by one of the eituns inscriptions. The discrepancy here invites pondering. The economy of Pompeii is very briefly and incompletely treated by Emidio De Albentiis. He outlines the extent of Pompeii's involvement in the sea trade, its geographical assets for this in the Sarnus river and its valley and access to the territory behind Vesuvius, and the evidence for its trading throughout the eastern Mediterranean, which is seen as the chief source of wealth in precolonial Pompeii. The other mainstay of its economy, agriculture, especially viticulture, is barely sketched, and the production of garum, famous enough to merit citation by Pliny (H.N. 31.94), is mentioned only in passing. There is no discussion of the world of business and banking, the dealings of L. Caecilius Jucundus and his associates. Such skeletal treatment is very disappointing. Instead the author concentrates on the macellum and the traffic in the commodities of daily life and related services, food stuffs and thermopolia, fulleries and bakeries. It is good to find the importance of cloth finishing, once exaggerated into a major industry, now restored to its proper modest place, but one misses any account of such specialties as the production of mills and the training of gladiators. There is also no mention of the artisans, such as the gem-cutter Pinarius Cerialis.

The account of social life and amusements is fuller; here one has accounts of the gymnasia and bath complexes as well as the theatres and amphitheatre. Emphasis is placed on amateur athletics and bathing; the so-called Palestra Grande is a sports field with a swimming pool, a doubtful identification given the rows of large trees and the ramped floor of the tank that emerges at ground level at its western end. The author is unduly impressed by the engineering of the baths at the expense of the activities there, and by the bloodshed of the amphitheatrical games at the cost of the theatres and dramatic presentations. Scant attention is paid to the architecture of these buildings and their functioning. Apparently the author thinks that communal bathing by both sexes was to be the rule in the Suburban Baths and Central Baths because there is no women's section (p. 192).

The treatment of the individual houses is for the most part necessarily brief, and the introduction to this section does not address the question of the various recognizable types of rooms and complexes and their organization but only the impact of these and their decoration through the centuries since the rediscovery of Pompeii. The grouping of the houses according to the four Pompeian styles is logical but here entails anomalies and uncertainties. Thus the House of the Surgeon that comes first, although it is unquestionably an early house and important, no longer offers any first style decoration and is largely a bare shell. The House of Sallust would have been a better choice, although harder to read. In discussing the House of the Faun the author is understandably inclined to emphasize the beautiful mosaics of its floors, but these are of relatively late installation, and we learn little about the architectural forms and history of the house. Here it is surprising to learn that the author considers the biclinium off the tuscanic atrium floored with a symplegma in mosaic to have been the master bedroom (p. 229) and that the little private stage at the north end of the second peristyle was a niche for the display of a statue (p. 222).

In the account of the second style House of the Silver Wedding the author sees the big garden to the east as consciously imitating a Greek palaestra in its expanse framed by colonnades and the inclusion of hypothetical exedral spaces. Since there is scant evidence that the colonnade, subsequently completely destroyed, ever ran on all sides or that there were exedrae, this is unwarranted. So is the notion that the Rhodian portico of the southern peristyle was to create isolation of this peristyle and the rooms around it from the atrium. It was rather clearly necessary as a transition between the grand scale of the atrium and the more intimate scale of the peristyle. While the House of the Cryptoporticus offers some of the finest second style decoration that survives, not only painting that includes an oecus decorated with a megalography but a good bit of superb plasterwork, it is impossible in its present condition, dismembered and extensively remodelled, to reconstruct its original plan. The atrium complex (or complexes) is completely lost, and reconstruction of the peristyle complex from what remains has to be highly conjectural. Consequently the author concentrates on the little sacellum decorated with a frieze of stucco relief illustrating the end of the Iliad, though this belongs not to the second style but late in the city's history.

The third style is slighted, divided between the House of Julius Polybius, where only the portions of the peristyle and the rooms at its north end offer examples of this style, and the House of Lucretius Fronto, where only most of the atrium complex is third style. But the latter offers a good example of the architecture of this period, whereas the former's significant architecture is late first style. A better choice in architecture would have been the House of the Orchard (I, 9, 5) or the Villa Imperiale.

The range of house-types among the seven houses representing the fourth style is admirable. These include large houses and small houses created in the last period and contemporary with their decoration and houses of considerable age that have been remodelled and modified. The decorations include mosaics, plasterwork and furniture, as well as painting, and the paintings range from the impressionistic sketching of the forum frieze of the Insula of Julia Felix to the highly finished panel pictures of the House of the Vettii and House of the Tragic Poet. But again insufficient attention is given to the architecture. The garden biblinium of the House of Apollo is identified as a bedroom (p. 286). The little peristyle complex of the House of the Vettii is seen as a place of privilege (p. 298) and the camera d'amore as a prostitute's cell (p, 297).

In the account of the Insula of the Chaste Lovers Varone introduces the theory that there was a second major earthquake not long before the eruption of Vesuvius that buried the city. This would account for there being so many buildings in ruined condition seventeen years after the earthquake of A.D. 62 and for there being so much construction and decoration in progress all over the city at the time of the eruption. This idea is also embraced by Coarelli and can be supported by Pliny's statement that, although numerous earthquakes accompanied the eruption, these were less frightening because they were customary in Campania (Ep. 6.20.2). This then could be used to explain a number of anomalies. But recovery from a major earthquake is always painfully slow; not only is there great human suffering and destruction, but the very fabric of existence is disrupted. Damage reaches far into the earth; roads have buckled, and the water and sewer systems have been broken and polluted. At Tuscania in 1972 I found people still living in garages and makeshift shelters five years after the earthquake of 1967. Moreover, in the case of Pompeii the plight of the city was compounded by the disastrous fire of Nero in 64 that destroyed much of the capital. Most of whatever work force was available would then have been drawn off to attend to the relief and rebuilding of Rome. And it was not housing that was conspicuously lacking in Pompeii at the time of the eruption, but public buildings, and especially public buildings that would have required the major outlay of public money, the great temples of Jupiter and Venus, the basilica, the Building of Eumachia, and the forum colonnade. These could all wait until more pressing needs had been dealt with. I do not doubt that there were earthquakes preceding and accompanying the eruption, but the evidence of earthquake damage that one sees in the forum of Pompeii is still most reasonably to be laid to the earthquake of A.D. 62.

One would like to recommend this book for the quality of the color photography, if nothing else. This is superb throughout, the work of Alfredo and Pio Foglia. The images are sharp and clean; their number runs to more than four hundred. The photographers have found the most informative prospects and chosen their angles and light carefully. Frequently these are unusual, but they are never deliberately dramatic or artificial. Many pictures are double-spread on pages of large format. Some of the details have been enlarged to the point of exaggeration; one does not need to have an intaglio gem fill a whole page or details of mosaics in which one can count every tessera. But these are minor faults. But I found this book, although sturdily bound, too heavy to read without support, essentially a coffee table book. And there are other good picture books of Pompeii that cost much less.

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