Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2018.04.03 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2018.04.03

Jennifer F. Stephens, Arthur E. Stephens, Pompeii: A Different Perspective: Via dell'Abbondanza, A Long Road, Well-Traveled.   Atlanta, GA:  Lockwood Press, 2017.  Pp. 126.  ISBN 9781937040789.  $49.95.  


Reviewed by Matthew Selheimer, University of Leicester (mds27@leicester.ac.uk)

Pompeii: A Different Perspective website

This work is an extended photo essay focusing on one of the most notable streets in Pompeii, the Via dell’Abbondanza. With a large format of 33 centimeters wide by 23 centimeters tall and containing 126 pages of thick, high-grade paper, it appears, at first glance, to be something akin to a ‘coffee table’ book. Despite this initial impression, however, the well-developed methodology used to produce the photographic images and the rich views they offer of this ancient thoroughfare, along with brief discussions of the excavations, the state of preservation of the facades along it, and a robust companion website with two scholarly essays, make this a worthy contribution to Pompeian studies and the broader subject of Roman urbanism.

The book is essentially divided into four major sections, although it is organized more loosely in the table of contents. The first section includes a forward by the former head of the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Napoli e Pompei from 1995 to 2009, Pier Giovanni Guzzo, along with a prologue, introduction, and a brief overview of the authors’ concept of photomosaics, which are defined as “an image made up of a large number of single photographs at the same scale that are carefully joined together.” The second section features the detailed photomosaics of each insula along the Via dell’Abbondanza from a north-facing perspective followed by the south-facing perspective based on photographs taken by the authors between 2005 and 2009. The third section includes a brief discussion of the excavations, the impact of WWII bombing, and the state of preservation of five insulae. The fourth section provides a more detailed discussion of the project’s methodology and photomosaic production. This is followed by a bibliography, acknowledgments, and credits by the authors.

In his introduction, Professor Guzzo, who authorized the project while serving as Soprintendente, remarks how it “updates the monumental publication of the excavations of this exceptional ancient road composed by Vittorio Spinazzola,” who excavated much of the Via dell’Abbondanza in the early decades of the 20th century. The prologue provides an engaging phenomenological perspective regarding how this complex street may have been experienced across a typical Roman day. The following introduction reveals that the authors’ motivation to produce the book was stimulated from observing “the decline in the condition of the buildings and their decorations,” which led them to investigate techniques for producing the photomosaic images. The introduction also explains the choice of the Via dell’Abbondanza among the many streets in Pompeii, because it is the “longest street” and possesses “unique features,” such as the intersection with the Forum, an entrance gate to the city, public buildings, a major crossroads, and multiple types of structures (p. 1).

Concluding the first section, the authors summarize what will be presented with each photomosaic to follow: a scale bar and north arrow, a location map of the insula on the Pompeian street plan, the Fiorellian regio, insula, and doorway numbers, cross-street names, excavation dates, possible functions, and an abridged list of names given to each structure by various sources. This information is later presented concisely and clearly; a good example can be seen on the companion website: Regio VII.9. GPS coordinates and elevation data useful for GIS and other geospatial purposes are, unfortunately, not included.

Section two focuses on the photomosaic images for each of the thirty-two insulae beginning in the west at the Forum entrance and heading east to the Sarno gate (Regio I.4,6-9,11-13; Regio II.1-5; Regio III.1-7; Regio VII.1,9,13,14; Regio VIII.3-5; and Regio IX.1,7,11-13). Having worked several field seasons in Pompeii, this reviewer found the photomosaics provide a very good and seemingly accurate representation of the structures from ground level to their maximum heights. Each doorway is clearly labeled along with a brief reference to excavation dates, modern attributed name reference(s), and usage summaries. The authors also indicate, albeit later in the work (p. 105), that the scale bars on the photomosaics vary from insula to insula due to the significant differences in their lengths, a point which would have been useful to mention prior to presenting the photomosaics in this section. Regarding usage, the authors have consulted several sources, including canonical works in Pompeian studies such as the Pompeianarum Antiquitatum Historia (1860-4), Della-Corte (1965), and Eschebach and Müller-Troilus (1993).1 The usage attributions are aggregated across these sources and presented without discussion. Thus, the impression the reader takes away from the photomosaic pages is at once both impressive and broad, yet shallow – at a glance, one can see the length of an entire city block in vivid color, but the information about what is being viewed is limited and requires further consultation with these and other sources to obtain a more complete understanding.

Two good examples of this dichotomy are the photomosaics for Regio VII.1 and Regio IX.1. The Via dell’Abbondanza along Regio VII.1, which lies to the west of the major intersection with the Via Stabiana, features a wide-open, piazza-like area. This area is not fully shown or mentioned in the relevant pages of the book (pp. 14-15), which is curious given one of the companion website essays discusses this section of the street and the piazza-like area specifically (see further discussion of the companion website essays below). Similarly, Regio IX.1 features a well-known elevated sidewalk fronting the Casa di Epidius Rufus (IX.1.20), which the book describes simply as an atrium house, without mention of the unusual sidewalk and what this type of feature may indicate about property-owner agency and the shaping of public perception (Hartnett 2011; 2017).3 While the authors do not declare spatial usage analysis to be an aim of the book, further discussion of noteworthy features such as these would have added to its value.

In the third section, after a brief discussion of the excavations (pp. 76-80) and World War II bombings (p. 81), a series of five insulae (Regio VII.9, IX.7, IX.12, III.2, and III.3) are profiled as case studies on the state of preservation of the facades. Evaluation is made across seven categories by comparing the photomosaics against earlier excavation reports, watercolors, drawings, and etchings. A nice example of this is illustrated on the companion website, Regio VII.9, which illustrates how much of the plaster and graffiti have now been lost on the southern wall of the Eumachia Building.

The fourth and final section of the book (pp. 96-105) provides an in-depth review of the photomosaic methodology. The authors describe how drawings of the frontages were first made, to which the photo images were then applied in Adobe Photoshop and cropped to create a continuous image. They describe the use of a total station for accurate alignment of three-dimensional point coordinates, the custom creation of a camera support structure with bubble level to shoot the facades of structures over 4.9m in height, and the use of a “good-quality digital camera” and color control calibrator (pp. 98-101). While the camera used, a Nikon D-100, is now small by current standards with only 6 megapixels of resolution, the images produced in RAW format were rendered in 300 pixels per inch (ppi) density, thus enabling large format reproduction and significantly exceeding high-definition video quality (e.g. 1080p video is approximately 100 ppi). However, despite the significant effort applied in shooting and aligning the photomosaics, this reviewer did see a few cases of perspective distortion – a notable example is the east wall of the Schola Armaturarum (III.3.6).

In addition to offering digital versions of the photomosaic images, the companion website provides significant additional information and two essays that delve deeper into spatial usage. The additional information includes the project objectives, a self-assessment of results, further details on the development of the photomosaic methodology, preservation analyses for 15 additional insulae, data tables, as well as a bibliography, glossary, and links to other online resources. The first essay by John Dobbins proposes a visual division into three “zones or sections” of the Via dell’Abbondanza from the Forum entrance on the west to the intersection with Via Stabiana on the east. Dobbins also provides a method for calculating how many people could have been observed along this section of the street, estimating that it would have been approximately 750 people at any given time. The second essay by Damian Robinson addresses the well-worn theme of Pompeii as a city in decline after the earthquake in 62 CE. In his essay, Robinson discusses the House of the Wild Boar (VIII.3.8), arguing that the quality of the entrance and house decoration belie a property in decline, and instead indicate continuing wealth. He further argues that the shops adjacent, but not connected, to the house are a sign of ongoing wealth due to the contiguous opus signinum sidewalk they share. Based on these observations, Robinson rejects the Ciceronian ideal (de Officiis I.151) that being an elite member of Roman society meant engaging solely in agricultural business and not commercial pursuits more broadly.

Additionally, it should be mentioned that both the book and website lack references to some of the more recent and relevant Pompeian scholarship (e.g. Ellis 2004, Poehler 2006, Kaiser 2011, and Hartnett 2011).3 The approach to viewing the insulae facades from a north-facing perspective down the length of the street and then from a south-facing perspective along the length again is also unnatural to how space is experienced in 360 degrees. Despite these points and the aforementioned critiques, the book and its companion website are a welcome addition to Pompeian studies and will appeal to Roman archaeologists, students of classical antiquity, architectural historians, as well as the more curious tourist interested in having professional photographs of Pompeii’s urban landscape.


Notes:


1.   Fiorelli, G. Pompeianarum Antiquitatum Historia quam ex cod. mss. et a schedis diurnisque. 3 vols. Napoli: Edit. Prid. Non. Martias, 1860-1864. Della-Corte, M. Case ed Abitanti di Pompei, 3rd edition. Naples: Fausto Fiorentino, 1965. Eschebach, L. and J. Müller-Trollius. Gebäudeverzeichnis und Stadtplan der antiken Stadt POMPEJI. Köln: Böhlau Verlag, 1993.
2.   Hartnett, J. 2011. The Power of Nuisances on the Roman Street, in R. Laurence and D. Newsome (eds) Rome, Ostia, Pompeii: Movement and Space. 135-59. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hartnett, J. 2017. The Roman Street: urban life and society in Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Rome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
3.   Ellis, S. 2004. “The Distribution of Bars at Pompeii: archaeological, spatial, and viewshed analyses”, Journal of Roman Archaeology, 17, 371-384. Poehler, E. 2006. “The Circulation of Traffic in Pompeii’s Regio VI,” Journal of Roman Archaeology, 19, 53-74. Kaiser, A. 2011. Roman Urban Street Networks: streets and the organization of space in four cities. Routledge Studies in Archaeology, 2. New York: Routledge. Hartnett 2011 (and now 2017, see note 2).

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