BMCR 2003.07.05

Houses and Monuments of Pompeii: The Works of Fausto and Felice Niccolini. With an introduction by Stefano De Caro, Translated by Thomas M. Hartmann

, , , Houses and monuments of Pompeii : the works of Fausto and Felice Niccolini. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002. 223 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 37 cm. ISBN 0892366842 $75.00.

This large-format, slip-cased picture book is a translation of a book published in 1997 by De Agostini. The title is somewhat misleading, in that it suggests that it may be a republication of the great project of Fausto and Felice Niccolini, Le case ed i monumenti di Pompei disegnati e descritti (4 vols., 1854-1897). Instead, it is a highly-selective assessment of the Niccolinis’ project. The brief thematic essays that begin the book (pp. 10-60) reveal its scatter-shot approach: Ciapparelli, “The Editorial Adventures of the Niccolini Brothers”; Colle, “The Evolution of Pompeian Tastes in Europe”; Cassanelli, “Pompeii in Nineteenth-century Painting” and “Images of Pompeii: From Engraving to Photography”; and David, “Fiorelli and Documentation Methods in Archaeology.” Plates with captions of varying precision, written by Ciapparelli and David, follow (61-217). They divided the plates into loose thematic categories: topography of Pompeii (64-71); public areas (72-101); private buildings and decorations (102-167); necropoleis (168-175); household objects (curiously including graffiti and dipinti, as well as the banquet paintings from the House of the Triclinium [V, 2, 4]) (176-193); “Pompeii as it was” (194-217); a selective chronology of the excavations (218-219); and a brief, bewilderingly selective bibliography (219-220).1

From Ciapparelli’s first essay we find that Fausto and Felice Niccolini were steeped in the archaeology of Pompeii thanks to the work of their father, Antonio, who directed the publication of the sixteen-volume Real Museo Borbonico (1824-1857). With the fall of the Bourbons and the initial unification of Italy, their younger friend, the archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli, became inspector, and then superintendent, at Pompeii. Fiorelli’s call for proper archaeological methods, including careful mapping and documentation, inspired the Niccolinis’ publication of Le case ed i monumenti di Pompei disegnati e descritti (1854-1897). Although originally issued in 137 fascicles, most consisting of several plates and text pages dedicated to an individual monument, in final form Le case ed i monumenti was a huge four-volume folio measuring 57 x 46 cm (22 1/2 x 18″).2 Today it is a rare book. Even among the many libraries of Rome, there are only two complete sets available to scholars.

Since it is such a precious and rare resource, the editorial decision to make the Niccolini brothers’ magnum opus into a coffee-table book is lamentable. This is not to say that the themes briefly developed by Ciapparelli, Colle, Cassanelli, and David are not relevant and of interest to both scholar and layperson, but it is to say that the book presents no new scholarship. What is more, it lacks the basic reference apparatus that, were it present, would make the book useful for someone doing research on Pompeii, on nineteenth-century methods of excavation and documentation, or on the Niccolini brothers and the artists who worked for them.

For the scholar wanting to find out how the Niccolini volumes documented a particular monument, there is no topographical index listing buildings by regio, insula, and doorway. (The only index is a list of artists on 222.) The “General Map of Pompeii” on 58-59 (with part of the map lost across the gutter) lists the buildings covered by the Niccolini volumes with their addresses, but then keys the buildings to arbitrary numbers on the map. For example, I noted that the famous picture of the Riot in the Amphitheater spreads across 100-101; the caption tells us that the artist who created the illustration was Vincenzo Loria and that the painting was discovered in the “House of the Gladiator Actius Anicetus (I, 3, 23).” Going to the plan, we find no regio or insula numbers, just the number “13” approximately where the House I, 3, 23 is located. Since the caption is brief and uncritical, it does not point out that Loria failed to reproduce correctly the important inscriptions on the northern wall of the palaestra documenting D. Lucretius (Valens) and D. Lucretius Satrius Valens, both known through announcements of munera painted on house façades as editores munerum of the Neronian period.

A second example: on page 102 we see Frauenfelder’s plan of the House of the Colored Capitals (VII, 4, 31) framed right and left by an Ionic and Doric column. Between them, at the top of the sheet, is a capital — but it belongs to the entrance of the House of the Figured Capitals (VII, 4, 57). In fact, the reader with a sharp eye will see that very capital reproduced on page 109 in a plate by F. Tessitore dedicated to finds in VII, 4, 57. Apparently Frauenfelder confused the two houses (they are nearby). A Pompeianist working with the Niccolini volumes expects to find such errors, but an unsuspecting student or non-specialist does not. The editors of this volume have chosen to ignore them.

In its presentation of the range and variety of both artists and their treatment of the subject of Pompeii, Houses and Monuments of Pompeii complements the volume of the encyclopedia published by Treccani, Pompei: pitture e mosaici. This special volume, entitled La documentazione nell’opera di disegnatori e pittori dei secoli XVIII e XIX (Rome, 1995), unlike the other nine volumes of the encyclopedia (a region-by-region, building-by-building survey), presents 1200 seventeenth- and eighteenth-century paintings and drawings stored in the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Napoli. These works, by twenty-nine different artists, document paintings and mosaics found at Pompeii between its discovery in 1748 and the end of the Bourbon control in the mid-nineteenth century.3 If one compares the Treccani volume with the Getty volume, it turns out that only four of the artists, Giuseppe Abbate, G. Discanno, Teodoro Declère, Giacinto Gigante, span the pre- and post-Bourbon projects. All the others are presumably younger artists employed by the Niccolinis.

Although this volume does provide a reasonably good introduction to the history of the pictorial documentation of Pompeii in the second half of the nineteenth century, its lack of a critical apparatus seriously compromises its usefulness. For the scholar already familiar with the general culture of the period, the excavations, and the diffusion of Pompeian decoration and its artifacts throughout Europe, this hefty volume offers few surprises. What is more, the original Niccolini volumes offer what the scholar needs: the documentation of buildings, paintings, mosaics, and sculptures in systems consonant with the scholarly goals of the latter half of the nineteenth century. With all their quirks and inaccuracies, the original volumes offer what this selection cannot: invaluable, if flawed, representations of works of art and decoration no longer with us as well as insight into the methodology of Pompeii’s excavations in the second half of the nineteenth century.

To its credit, the Getty volume does provide the visual splendor of Le case ed i monumenti: its excellent color reproductions fill pages about half the size of the original volumes. (The editors have, of course, further reduced some of the Niccolini plates to fit them into the layout and to allow for captions.) The volume provides ready access to aspects of a rare publication that will appeal to the general public. In particular, it highlights the fact that the artists employed by the Niccolini brothers had widely varying skills and distinct artistic aims. Views complete with tourists and guards emphasize the burgeoning of Pompeii as a tourist attraction; plans and maps — as well as plates filled with images of the small finds — remind us of the aims of scientific documentation; the many pages reproducing wall-decorative schemes reveal the interest in Pompeian interior decoration; reproductions of center pictures, isolated from their wall-decorative schemes, underscore how important such images were in the effort to explain the subjects of classical mythology and of everyday life. Of course, without the original texts written by the Niccolinis, the reader cannot judge the effectiveness of their interpretive efforts.

The shortcomings of this expensive volume prompt me to question the objectives of the publisher, the J. Paul Getty Museum, who acquired the book from the Italian publisher, De Agostini. Is the Museum simply in the business of producing attractive coffee-table books loosely related to its holdings? Or should it put its publishing expertise and funds behind books that advance scholarship? A recent publication, soon to be reviewed in these pages, could have served as a model for rethinking the Niccolini brothers’ work: Il Museo Segreto, edited by Laurentino García y García and Luciana Jacobelli (Marius Editore, Pompei, 2001). It is, like the Getty volume, a translation — in this case of the eighth volume of Herculaneum et Pompéi, a work that has never appeared in Italian, probably because it concerns the objects in the in Pornographic Collection of the Naples Museum.4 Volume one of Il Museo Segreto is a facsimile, but with the original translated into Italian. Volume two provides a scholarly, critical apparatus. There one finds a small color reproduction of the present state of each object reproduced by Barré, accompanied by a full catalogue entry and relevant bibliography.

A similar approach, with facsimile reproductions of all of the Niccolini plates, accompanied by a volume providing a proper scholarly apparatus, is what is needed to valorize Le case ed i monumenti. Such a publication would be a great boon to scholar and layperson alike. What is needed is not another coffee-table book with a layout smacking of FMR, but a modest reproduction of the whole of Le case ed i monumenti, with brief catalogue entries for the individual paintings, mosaics, sculptures, and objects belonging to the instrumentum domesticum. Considering, in particular, how many wall paintings documented by the Niccolini volumes have been destroyed in the interim, and how many objects are now lost, such a book would be well worth the effort — and worthy of the sponsorship of an important cultural institution like the Getty Museum.


1. The translation, by Thomas M. Hartmann, is generally good, with several errors indicating his lack of familiarity with art-historical vocabulary. Thus we have “design” for “drawing” (disegno); “conserved” for “preserved”(conservato); and on 148, fig. 98 “G. Discanno, Frescoes with ‘Neolithic’ (for Nilotic) Scenes of Pygmies.”

2. Publication dates of the individual volumes: vol. 1, 1854; vol. 2, 1862; vol. 3, 1890; vol. 4, 1897. Both Fausto and Felice Niccolini died in 1886. Antonio Niccolini, named after his grandfather, carried through the publication of volumes 3 and 4.

3. The second part of the volume is dedicated to 16 vedutisti, or view-painters, represented in collections other than that of the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Napoli.

4. M. L. Barré, Musée secret. Vol. 8. of Herculaneum et Pompéi, recueil général des peintures, bronzes, mosaïques, etc., découverts jusqu’à ce jour et reproduits d’après Le antichità di Ercolano, Il Museo Borbonico et tous les ouvrages analogues (Paris, 1877).