Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2004.03.51

Carlo Avvisati, Pompei: Mestieri e Botteghe 2000 anni fa.   Rome:  Bardi, 2002.  Pp. 233; figs. 106.  ISBN 88-85699-99-5.  €26.00.  



Reviewed by David Noy, University of Wales, Lampeter (d.noy@lamp.ac.uk)
Word count: 1125 words

Carlo Avvisati is described on the book's cover as a journalist who specialises in art, archaeology, culture and Neapolitan language. He is responsible for many recent articles on Pompeii in Italian newspapers. The book consists of a series of short sections, mostly four to six pages in length, focussing on individual Pompeians and their jobs, interspersed with some more general pieces on the history of Pompeii. Each section could stand on its own as a self-contained piece of journalism. A preface by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill says that Avvisati "understands, with the instinct of a journalist, that the realities of life emerge from a series of snapshots". The book's aim is not stated explicitly, but it is evidently to give a lively introduction to the everyday life and work of Pompeii for readers with little previous knowledge. The lack of a map indicates that it is not aimed specifically at visitors to Pompeii, although its size would make it more convenient to carry round than other books which include "a guide to the ruins", and buildings are carefully identified by regio and insula.

Each section begins with a Latin quotation in Italian translation, usually from Martial. In most cases Avvisati then discusses a named individual, with information about his or her occupation. Sometimes the individual is dismissed in one or two sentences, and the discussion is a fairly general one in the "daily life in Ancient Rome" style, with limited reference to Pompeii; an extreme example of this is a piece on chariot-racing. The section titles include: "The goldsmith Pinarius"; "Faustilla: the lady of usury"; "Petroselinus the comic actor"; "Fruit and vegetables, by Felix"; "Stephanus the dyer"; "Modestus the baker". These all concentrate on the Pompeian evidence. "Telephus the wooden sword" proves to be about gladiators. Faustilla's section actually has more discussion of the banker Caecilius than of Faustilla herself. Some occupations which usually receive little attention have their own discussions: carpenter, barber, mason. There are also some more thematic sections, e.g. "Cosmetics and perfumes"; "Paper, pen and inkwell".

The table of contents indicates that five sections, whose titles are given there in upper case, are of a different nature from those described above. This is not apparent when reading the book itself, where all titles are given in upper case, and these sections therefore appear to have been distributed at random. They are: "The occupations"; "The origins of the city"; "Death of a city"; "The numbers of the massacre"; "Rediscovery and beginning of the excavations". Between them they provide a brief general history of Pompeii.

There are illustrations on most pages, often in colour. Some are the author's own drawings and photographs, but nearly a third are eighteenth and nineteenth-century drawings and reconstructions, and a few more are of objects unconnected with Pompeii. The illustrations are not referred to directly in the text, and readers are left to make their own connections. Occasionally, a description in the text which appears to refer to an adjacent illustration eventually proves not to.

Most of Avvisati's information seems to come from Della Corte's Case e abitanti di Pompei (1965), which is cited regularly. He has also used epigraphic sources, and he often quotes Pompeian graffiti, usually giving Latin and Italian versions. There is a list of Latin terms for all the occupations discussed. He is aware of recent developments and there are references to discoveries made in the last few years, e.g. a new tributary of the River Sarno (43). Often these are to Avvisati's own newspaper articles, but there are also some footnotes with academic references, although referencing is generally haphazard.

Avvisati is fond of statements on the lines of "as can be seen, from then to today, little or nothing has changed" (137). To help ancient-modern comparison he uses a system of converting Roman monetary values to euros, based on the price of bread (46). According to this, one Roman as corresponds to about EUR 0.26. Reasonably enough for this sort of book, he does not usually indicate where interpretations are doubtful or debated, e.g. he calls the Villa Moregine (excavated 1999-2000) a five-star hotel and does not mention the alternate view of it as a residence of Nero. He gives a lower estimate than some recent writers of the number of people killed at Pompeii, which he puts at 1,300 out of a population of 10,000 or a little less.

The only clear factual mistake which I noticed, probably a misprint, was the date of the foundation of the Sullan colony, given as 280 BC instead of 80 (107). There are some minor errors with Latin words and a few dubious claims. There is no evidence that the barmaids in Asellina's thermopolium all spoke their "languages of origin", and the one called Smyrina was certainly not "Turkish" (204). Some interpretations may be over-literal. Felix fellat assibus I seems more likely to be an insult than a real statement of a prostitute's charge, whether Felix was male or female, but at least Avvisati considers the possibility of male prostitution.

The book invites comparison with the recent BBC publication by Paul Wilkinson, Pompeii. The Last Day (2003), which seems to be aimed at a comparable, English-language readership and costs almost the same even though it is hardback and Avvisati's is not. The illustrations in Wilkinson's book are much better in content and quality (although Avvisati's show more artefacts), and Wilkinson also provides a map of the city and a guide for visitors. On the other hand, Avvisati has a much fuller bibliography, and detailed indexes. Wilkinson gives more information on the eruption itself, but Avvisati has a good summary of what happened. Avvisati has more material on individual Pompeians but does not deal much with public buildings, or at all with religion. He says more than Wilkinson about clothing, food (including Pompeian versions of pizza and pasta) and household objects. Both have substantial discussions of the fullery of Stephanus, but only Wilkinson explains clearly that it is a house converted after the earthquake. Both give the vivid detail of the skeleton found there with the day's takings of HS 1,090. Both books use the famous portrait of the young woman with a writing tablet, sometimes referred to as "Sappho". Wilkinson says she is "deep in thought and writing a letter to a loved one"; Avvisati puts the picture in a section on gold and glass, and describes her as "a woman with her hair gathered in a net worked in gold".

Avvisati's book would make a good introduction for readers who are relative newcomers to Pompeii and to Roman history in general. It is therefore rather surprising that Bardi have included it in a series (Collezione Archeologica) whose two previous publications were highly specialised archaeological works on Pompeii.

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