Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2016.12.11 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2016.12.11

Gernot Losansky, Die Obergeschossareale der Stadthäuser in Herculaneum: architektonische Anlage, raumkontextuelle Einordnung und häusliches Leben.   Wiesbaden:  Dr. Ludwig Reichert Verlag, 2015.  Pp. 417.  ISBN 9783954901098.  €148.00.  

Reviewed by Alexandra Dardenay, Université de Toulouse Jean Jaurès-CNRS, Laboratoire TRACES (

Table of Contents

This book is drawn from a doctoral thesis defended in 2013 at the Julius-Maximilians-Universität Würzburg. Straightaway one can welcome the speed with which the publication of this work has been accomplished. As the title clearly indicates, the study focuses on the upper floors of Herculaneum’s houses and analyzes them in the context of Roman domestic architecture, and, more broadly, of the urban area. With this perspective, the author selected a sample of ten houses.1 But questions arise: why specifically pick these ten houses among the 41 domus or household buildings (investment properties, rental apartments, etc.) that have been excavated,2 and on what basis were the surveyed homes chosen?

Regarding the criteria governing the author’s choice, the answer is not entirely satisfactory. An explanation is briefly discussed in a paragraph in the introduction (p. 20). From this paragraph, we understand that the buildings’ selection is based on structures among those identified during the excavations of the early twentieth century, and published by A. Maiuri, except for the Casa di Argo that was discovered in the nineteenth century. However, the excavations undertaken by Superintendent Maiuri covered a much larger number of domestic buildings (the ones from insulae III to VI, and the insula orientalis IO1, for a total of 35 buildings) that almost all include developed areas and upstairs living spaces.

Reading the author’s work and examining the documents he included, we understand his sample a little better. The pictures taken by Losansky, and published in the plates at the end of his book, show that the author probably did not have access to most of Herculaneum’s upper floors: indeed, all shots are taken from the street, from the ground floor, or from a distant perspective. Unable to directly access some of the architectural spaces he studied, the author must have based his study on secondary sources, such as excavation notebooks and publications, archival photographs and ancient plans. All these sources are widely quoted in notes and in the final plate registers.

We can therefore conclude that Losansky chose a sample of ten buildings on the basis of criteria like quality and quantity of the documentation available to him. Some of the selected edifices are the same as those studied by Pirson in his 1999 book.3 This explains why he chose in particular casa dei Cervi and casa del Colonnato Tuscanico, which are featured in two scarce monographs published on Herculaneum houses in the twentieth century. Moreover, this explains the selection of the casa d'Argo, whose upper floors completely disappeared for lack of maintenance and restoration in the nineteenth century, but was also the subject of several publications since then. Some of these works offer detailed descriptions, drawings and graphics, and show that the upper floors were well preserved at the time of their discovery in 1828.4

The book consists of two parts. The first part ("Befundsituation") presents a catalog of data concerning the ten houses the author studied. An introductory chapter depicting the Herculaneum excavations history is followed by a chapter for each house, for a total of 11 chapters. The second part (“Systematisierung der Befunde und Analyse der Strukturen”) is a synthesis about upper floors.

In the first part, in order to be able to analyze the upper floors and compare them to the ground floors, the author has gathered information and data on the different levels. For each house, plans of the ground and upper floors are published at the end of the book, supplemented by some photographs. The author drew the plans from the various publications he compiled, and reworked and improved them himself as needed for his purposes.

The author actually took most of the pictures himself.5 The presence of some rare and hard to find documentary and photographic items from archives shows that the author researched the subject with care.6 The ground floor is briefly discussed, and then each room located in the upstairs area is meticulously described on the basis of all collected data. As a result, the quality of this survey compensates, in part, but unfortunately cannot replace, the lack of archaeological study of the structures as such. Indeed, since the author obviously could not personally visit and study the upstairs rooms, he wasn’t able to draw new plans, study the different phases of the buildings’ evolution, or perform a diachronic analysis of the evolution of the houses. He could not make hypotheses based on construction techniques implemented in the building in order to specify when repairs were made, or to explain successive rearrangements such as partition or room enlargement, the addition or closure of openings (doors, windows), room addition, creation of a new connection, a stairway, or décor upgrade (murals) indicating that a room had a new function. This archaeological aspect is not present in the buildings’ analyses, except the recovery and sometimes the new interpretations of the data gathered during A. Maiuri’s excavations.

The bibliography published at the end of this book is quite complete until 2013, when the thesis was defended. Since this university work was quickly turned into a monograph, some fundamental publications from2014 are neither mentioned nor exploited. We can cite the corpus of the mosaics in Herculaneum by Guidobaldi et al. and the work of D. Esposito on the paintings of the site, which both would have provided valuable data on the décor of the upper floors.7 What is more, it is difficult to explain why, after working for several years on the site of Herculaneum and, more specifically, on the upper floors, the author ignored the important thesis of James Andrews on the same subject, defended in 2006 at the University of Reading. This thesis is very comprehensive, and although it is not yet published, it has been well known to researchers who work on Herculaneum.8  Andrews was able to get access to most of the upper floors of Herculaneum and focused his research not on a sample, but on all houses excavated on the site.

The second part of the book is entitled "Systematisierung der Befunde und Analyse der Strukturen" and summarizes all the data. It is rather short, consisting of only fifty pages (p. 155-204). The author provides us with a systematic analysis of both the external and internal architectural systems of the upper floors. This part is divided into four chapters that address the following issues: 

- The architectural choices regarding room extension and floor partition.
- Room organization and how it evolved. This includes floor and wall decorations, as well as the inventory of discoveries.
- An analysis of the relationships between lower and upper floors.
- The boundaries of individual homes in regard to urbanism.

In the first chapter, the author points out that in a house, the ground and upper level floor plans are not identical. For example, while the ground floor always offers a way to go from one end of the house to the other, the upper floor is often divided into two or three (for the casa dei Cervi) independent units. These have no internal connection but have their own separate access. This is especially the case in homes with an atrium or peristyle. Moreover, when it comes to the size of a room, the upper floor plan usually does not mirror the ground floor plan; for example, sometimes one room upstairs may be two or three times bigger than the room located below (as is the case in the casa del Bel Cortile). 

The last part of the chapter is concerned with reflections on decorative coatings (walls and floors), and is incomplete and therefore quite disappointing due to a lack of in situ study of the walls and floors. The Herculaneum upper floors décor is virtually unpublished and the works the author consulted were not enough to develop a thoughtful reflection on this matter.

The second chapter deals with the relationship between levels and sums up available data on stairways, internal balconies, colonnades, and interior windows, as well as on the external openings (loggias, windows, stairs). The third chapter considers the house as a whole, distinguishing between floors that can be accessed directly from the street and those accessible from inside the house. In the latter case, the author separately analyzes the apartments located above the atrium area and those located above the peristyle area. One might wish that the author had compared the two categories, which would have highlighted their specific features, especially from an anthropological standpoint. However, we understand that he lacked information about furniture arrangement and instrumentum of the living space; this did not allow the author to take the step towards a more focused analysis on "ways of living" from a sociological or anthropological point of view. The ideas delivered in this thesis therefore remain very much typological, architectural and planimetric. Finally, chapter four offers a brief examination of the situation of balconies overlooking the streets

In sum, in spite of some weaknesses, this book by Losansky proposes an interesting assessment of upper floors in Herculaneum, which opens up many avenues of reflection. Moreover, one can rejoice at the publication of a synthesis on architecture at Herculaneum: there are so few.


1.   Casa a Graticcio (III, 13-15), casa dei Cervi (IV, 21), casa Sannitica (V, 1-2), casa di Nettuno ed Anfitrite (V, 6-7), casa del Bel Cortile (V 8), casa del Bicentenario (V, 13-16), taberna V, 17-18, casa della Colonna Laterizia (V, 19-25), casa del Colonnato Tuscanico (VI 16-19.25-27), casa d'Argo (II, 2)
2.   According to data from the ANR Vesuvia program Vesuvia (database: Accès base de données). The number 41 is given to the insulae II to VII and IO 1, excluding investment properties (tabernae and/or apartments upstairs) IO 2.
3.   F. Pirson, Mietwohnungen in Pompeji und Herculaneum. Untersuchungen zur Architektur und zum Wohnen und zur Sozial-Wirtschaftsgeschichte der Vesuvstädte, München, 1999. This book analyzes spaces, most often located on the floors of private buildings of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which could have been leased by their owners.
4.   This house is currently the subject of a doctoral thesis by Carla Marotta, University of Toulouse, directed by C. Bonnet and A. Dardenay . For sources available on the casa d'Argo, see Alexandra Dardenay, Agnes Allroggen-Bedel, Helene Eristov, Adeline Grand-Clément, Marie-Laure Maraval, Carla Marotta, Nicolas Monteix and Emmanuelle Rosso, “Herculanum. Des archives aux restitutions architecturales et décoratives”, Chronique des activités archéologiques de l’École française de Rome 2016. Online: Chronique.
5.   The origin of all these documents is listed p. 214-223.
6.   For example, figures 158 and 159 show two little pictures painted on the walls of the casa del Bicentenario that are erased today.
7.   Guidobaldi F. et al., Mosaici antichi in Italia. Regione prima, Ercolano, Pisa-Rome, 2014; Esposito D., La pittura di Ercolano, Rome, 2014.
8.   This thesis, which is entitled "The Development and Use of Upper Floors in Houses at Herculaneum", is available online at the download platform of University of Reading: Ethos.

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