BMCR 1996.12.10

1996.12.10, Rediscovering Antiquity. Karl Weber and the Excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae

, Rediscovering antiquity : Karl Weber and the excavation of Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae. Cambridge: New York, 1995. xx, 394 pages : illustrations, maps ; 26 cm. ISBN 9780521471503. $90.00.

The verb “rediscover” and the noun “rediscovery” are familiar to all readers of English in connection with the realm of archaeology. Parslow’s title thus refers to their normal associations and properly leads us to expect a study of the archaeological work of the Swiss excavator Karl Weber to bring the Vesuvian cities to light. However, as one works through the book, one has the impression that Parslow is applying his own antiquarian and archaeological talents to excavate the buried achievements of Weber from an antiquity of progressive neglect and ignorance that now extends to 250 years. As Weber helped to rediscover Herculaneum, Pompeii, and Stabiae, so Parslow aims to rediscover Weber.

Karl Weber entered upon the scene at Herculaneum, after nearby Pompeii had been located and identified, in 1750, at the age of 38. Born in 1712 in the canton of Schwyz of Switzerland, he studied in Lucerne until 1730 and then continued his education in Pavia, Italy. From 1731 until his death in 1764, he essentially lived his life in Italy. Like many of his nation, he enlisted in a regiment of Swiss mercenaries: they served not in Rome at the Vatican, but in the Kingdom of Naples. After a few years, he took examinations for admission to the corps of military engineers, passed them, and was transferred to the Royal Guard as engineer in 1743. His talents were gradually recognized, and in late 1749 Alcubierre, the Spanish military engineer who directed the royal excavations at Herculaneum, requested that Weber be made his assistant, with the task of supervising the excavations day by day. For about fifteen years, then, Weber’s work was essentially all the legal excavation performed on the three Vesuvian towns, though chiefly Herculaneum. To him goes credit for the discovery and exploration of the Villa of the Papyri (of Piso), much of the Theatre at Herculaneum, the Praedia of Julia Felix on the Via dell’Abbondanza at Pompeii, and several villas at Stabiae. Not a gigantic achievement, but one which has won the esteem of professional archaeologists and the warm sympathy as well of Parslow. Weber owns the reputation, among the relatively few who know his name and work, of being the first semi-professional archaeologist to operate near Vesuvius.

What exactly accounts for that reputation? At a time when the excavator was totally the servant of a monarch and his court officials, instructed to bring to the surface as swiftly and ruthlessly as possible antique finds that would enhance the private art collection of the prince or king, and to ignore or even destroy anything ordinary, Weber showed curiosity about the contexts from which the beautiful finds were wrenched and tried to explore the urban culture of the buried cities of Herculaneum and Pompeii in spite of his superiors. He risked the strong disapproval of his immediate authority Alcubierre, who protested at his “delays” and failure to produce regular booty, and used a variety of underhand devices to bedevil his life. Thus, Weber emerges as the kind of excavator with whom a modern archaeologist can easily sympathize. There were certain rules of thumb by which other excavators, looking for materials for the prince’s collection, operated at Herculaneum and Pompeii: they dug close to the walls of rooms where they were most likely to discover precious wall paintings and such materials from the floor as would have been carried along by the invading mud and ash. Weber preferred to explore an entire room, regardless of the time required, not for the loot but to get a complete idea of the room itself. He liked also to explore outside houses on the street. In Herculaneum this proved a most costly goal, because the hard volcanic fill and the need to preserve the buildings and gardens on the surface above the buried houses obliged the excavators to dig tunnels only. Every tunnel that was dug without significant finds might give Weber some information, but it also produced vast quantities of dirt that had to be dumped into another abandoned tunnel, created additional instability in the earth, and cost precious money, time, and sheer physical effort, from Weber as well as from the convicts and local workmen that he employed. The intensity with which Weber pursued his supervision of this work, over the years between 1750 and 1764, sapped his strong Swiss constitution and, it seems clear, brought about his early death at fifty-two.

We thus perceive in Weber an early dedication to scientific rather than exploitative excavation that makes him almost “heroic”, especially to admirers like Parslow. In addition, Weber’s talent and training as an engineer who really tried to appreciate the remains he was exposing resulted in some invaluable plans of sites and some strikingly original methods for making individual details stand out in his plans. Because of the sheer importance of the Villa dei Papiri, his plans have been carefully studied and frequently admired, from his beautiful reconstruction of the mosaic in the distant Belvedere (which he did in January 1751) to his detailed plan of the whole extensive villa, roughly two by four feet (which he completed early in 1758).

But for sheer ingenuity, Parslow rightly stresses the axonometric plan which Weber devised to present his work on the Praedia of Julia Felix at Pompeii. This is the finest development up to this time (1759-60) of artistic and engineering efforts to project the layout of a building so that not only the expert but even the lay person could visualize the architecture and setting. And it is the first axonometric projection in archaeology, where the practice would have and still has today a long future. Taking an imaginary viewpoint above and slightly to the left of the praedia, raising walls and columns to the same height and omitting all roofs and ceilings, Weber was able to display almost all interior and exterior spaces simultaneously. He imaginatively used different colors to bring out contrasts, distinguished different kinds of mosaic by crosshatching in gray or red, and concentrated lovingly on small details such as shelves, fountain water, and the seats of a latrine. Moreover, he accompanied such a plan with a detailed commentary that again shows the proto-archaeologist at work.

It would be wonderful to be able to say that Karl Weber won appreciation in his lifetime or shortly after, that his work determined the pattern of excavation around Vesuvius, and that he died a happy man. But none of that is true. Parslow sees an important part of Weber’s attraction in the fact that he is “an essentially tragic figure” (p. 4). He was, we are told, “a victim of circumstances,” a man with a vision of producing some truly archaeological monographs, who was blocked by the active opposition of his superior Alcubierre and by the indifference of the court he served. So he languished away in misery and neglect. That is certainly one way of interpreting the scanty facts at our disposal. The jealousies and ambitions that raged around the court of Naples and the palace near Herculaneum cannot be underestimated. Whether Weber himself was an important mover in the court controversies, or merely a Swiss pawn in the hands of others more skillful in the intricacies of Spanish-Italian intrigue, it seems hard to determine. He did have friends and those who used his work to strike at other members of the court. On the other hand, he does not appear to me to have been an easy man to work with, not one to pass a pleasant evening with; and he was far from tactful in dealing with the tricky protocol of the court. He was married, contrary to military regulations, at the age of twenty-seven to a Neapolitan woman and member of the noble de Luna family. It was an unwise alliance on several scores: he was brought up on charges of violating regulations by his commanding officer; the Luna family insisted on his paying a marriage settlement (which ruined him financially) without, it appears, putting up a dowry; and the marriage proved dreary for both—which was the reason for the regulation against intermarriage of Swiss and Italian—in that there were no children, and husband and wife spent little time together. It would appear that Weber was a fiercely independent person who did not make compromises easily and often acted on his own brusquely and undiplomatically as though to claim for himself more importance than most would concede him. He made strenuous efforts, though admittedly only a military engineer, to be accepted as a scholar and win admission as a fellow in the scientific Academy sponsoring work on Herculaneum. He wrote letters to the superiors of Alcubierre in defiance of the chain of command. And he defied and even played a nasty joke on the man, to retaliate on the small way in which he was being treated. I find this too petty to be the stuff of tragedy; Weber seems to have been more concerned with his own advancement and power than with any large principle that would legitimate the “tragic” pathos of Parslow.

This study falls between archaeology and antiquarianism. It throws light upon the first years of Vesuvian excavation, from about 1710 to 1765, with special attention to the years 1750-64 when Karl Weber was technically in charge at Herculaneum and Pompeii. Parslow, an undoubted expert on the original documents which have survived in the archives, brings this material ably into his operation of reconstruction. He helps us to visualize the tormented and Machiavellian atmosphere of the court of Naples and the academy of Herculaneum and even the moldy stench of the subterranean tunnels of these Vesuvian excavations. He enables us to imagine how much it demanded of a person like Weber to descend day after day into those tunnels and try to liberate his spirit to the potentialities of this confining atmosphere. In the end, perhaps because Weber is a rather small figure, unlike Schliemann or Arthur Evans, we miss the scope of tragedy. But Weber’s was a life of considerable significance; and those early excavations of his led in the work of the 20th century to truly scholarly archaeology known to every casual student of Greco-Roman antiquity.

Oxford Press has produced the book in a lavish manner, more as a coffee table volume than as a work for scholars. Seventy-six figures or illustrations catch the reader’s eye, many of them quite superfluous, such as those, it seems to me, concerned with Weber’s Swiss origins or the prints of places and events in Naples. The Press has marred its generosity with Pompeian and Herculanean plans by reducing them too often to a scale where they are illegible to younger eyes than mine (as I determined by querying my grandchildren). Figure 49 claims to be a close-up view of figure 48, but the difference in scale is so slight that most necessary details and all the writing remain indistinct. Some of the photographs of drawings are so faded as to be almost useless. The two fountain niches from Stabiae (Figs. 48 and 49) should have been clearer or else not used. Parslow himself seems to be baffled about one, the drowning of Helle after she fell from the ram and gave its name to the Hellespont. He consistently identifies it as the myth of Phryxis (sic) and Helle, regarding his Phryxis as the sister of Helle and the victim of drowning (p. 191) in the picture. Weber’s monograph on the site, which Parslow prints in full as Appendix Three (pp. 296-319, another extravagance) would have explained, if consulted on p. 310, the correct mythology. Still, I must confess to the fact that I enjoyed handling this attractive book.