BMCR 2004.01.19

The Lost World of Pompeii. With an introduction by Andrew Wallace-Hadrill

, , , , The lost world of Pompeii. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2002. 191 pages : illustrations (some color) ; 29 cm. ISBN 0892366877. $45.00.

Colin Amery and Brian Curran (CA and BC hereafter) provide a sound scholarly overview-cum-coffee-table-book on life in Ancient Pompeii as well as on the city’s afterlife as a major excavation site, part of the Grand Tour routine and test case for the possibilities (and limits) of archaeological conservation. The book is primarily aimed at the broadly interested public but is also of value for students of Classical civilizations as well as for archaeological specialists on the historiography of excavation practices. The book’s main objective is to heighten the awareness of the actual deplorable state of what has been unearthed in Pompeii from the late 18th century onwards as well as the urgent need to better protect and document what still survives.

The argument is built on the twofold importance of Pompeii as being an exceptionally rich freeze-frame of Roman life as well as having heavily influenced the approach of analysing cultural artefacts as a means of gaining knowledge about everyday life, politics and aesthetics of a distant past. This objective fixed the book opens with the destruction and excavation of the city, dedicates the following two quarters to Pompeian life, art and architecture before 79 AD, and ends with sections on the city’s reception in the period of the Grand Tour as well as within the art of the 18th and 19th century. This combination of old and new perspectives sets the book off from other recent publications aimed at a larger public, e.g. the book by Filippo Coarelli et al.1

Andrew Wallace-Hadrill’s introduction (W-H hereafter) sets the pace. He uses his intimate scientific knowledge of the site to urge spreading knowledge about Pompeii to better protect it. His argument rests on the site’s enormous popularity, not least because of its tragic destruction but also because of its importance as essence of ancient life for modern civilizations.

These remain the main themes for the rest of the book, presented in seven meticulously structured, thoughtful sections. The first chapter’s account of Pompeii’s destruction by Vesuvius (“The City Vanishes”) is based primarily on Pliny’s account and provides larger sections of it in translation. An excursus on the pre-destruction history of the town from the early Bronze-Age settlement onwards provides the reader with the cultural background and the different ethnic groups of the town. The critical analysis of the periods of unearthing Pompeii (“Rediscovery and Excavation”) from the Roman efforts directly after the destruction down to 1997, when Pompeii was awarded World Heritage status, acquaints the reader with the various strategies of unearthing as well as their (dis)advantages and provides an excellent accompaniment to recent studies on Pompeian excavations, e.g. those by Alain Schnapp and Pier Giovanni Guzzo et al.2

The following chapter (“Voices from a Lost World”) gives a description of Pompeian life, divided into sections on the public buildings around the forum (“Public and Political Life”) and on religion. It centres on the general workings of Roman cult as well as their varieties, like the rites in the Temple of Isis as well as Bacchic rituals, which are — following outdated studies — exemplified through the grand frieze in the Villa dei Misteri. Further aspects of life covered in this section are production and trade as well as leisure (theatre, games, sports, baths, food, and sex).

The account is illustrated with graffiti and inscription texts, generally given only in translation. Good maps and plans are provided; and there is a thoughtful digression on the urban development of Pompeii, based on the results of the recent Dutch survey.3

The next section deals with “The Pompeian House”. It starts with an account of W-H’s latest grouping of house types4 and analyses the strengths and weaknesses of his model. This typology leads directly into an architectural history of the Roman atrium house. The whole is structured as a virtual tour through an ideal house, which surprisingly uncritically follows traditional “room-type equals function” postulates and draws primarily on Vitruvius. It does not tackle the modern roots of these hypotheses in the work of August Mau,5 though this would have fit in well with the book’s general take on the interrelationship of ancient life and its modern interpretations. Neither does it mention that the function(s) of rooms and their names in Roman houses are far from definite, though this would have fit in with W-H’s general line of argument which the book otherwise follows.6 The Villa dei Misteri features again in this section as an exemplary villa structure.

The section on “Life and Art” has as its target “to see life and art in the city through the eyes of the actual inhabitants “(p. 130). It acquaints the reader in textbook style with the four types of wall-decoration — the Four Pompeian Styles — and their specific characteristics. This also sets the focus for the rest of the chapter, which deals with the wall decoration in private houses and almost completely neglects other types of art, such as sculpture in the round, or the arts in the public sphere (except for the baths).

Topics to be found in the art of the Pompeian houses include “Pleasures of Venus”, drawing on the erotic decoration of the Casa dei Vettii, as well as “Pleasures of Bacchus” focussing, again, on the grand frieze of the Villa dei Misteri. Other aspects are: virtual garden decorations, focussing on the garden of the Villa dei Papiri and its modern resurrection in the garden of the Getty Museum, and the garden of the Casa di Loreius Tiburtinus, paralleling it with the Chelsea Flower Show (p. 139).

Next comes the design of the culinary area and baths, centring on food and tableware. Here, though the mural from the House of Menander which depicts silverware is described, the actual find of silverware in the house is not mentioned in the text.7

A final part on portraits and self-representation on the walls draws its argument from the postulated realism of Pompeian painting and takes the faces on the wall as real Pompeian citizens: a male portrait presumably of Paquius Proculus is compared with the picture of a modern art dealer, the picture of a female with stylus and wax tablet is interpreted as equalling a portrait of Virginia Woolf, and the Pompeian painters who created these pictures are paralleled with “Magnum photographers in wartorn Vietnam” (p. 144). These modern analogies along with the uncritical methods of physiognomy that are drawn upon seem dubious from a scholarly point of view, but might work to involve the interested general public in the Pompeian cause, since its inhabitants seem so similar to their own sphere of living.

This section takes a very direct approach to the possible messages of art. It postulates that actual life is depicted on the walls (p. 120). Though this might be helpful to revive the picture for generally interested readers, it appears very uncritical and too casual in comparison to other fuller, more deeply analysed sections of the book. This becomes especially clear in the explanation of why the houses are decorated the way they are: “the southern sun-loving people” of Pompeii who spent most of their time outside needed to bring the outside inside.

With the next section — “The Grand Tour” — the examination of Pompeii’s modern reception begins again. The chapter follows two main lines of interest: Pompeii as birthplace of European art and of art-dealing. From the start, the history of the Grand Tour is directly linked with the objective of raising money for the current conservation of the town, and modern visitors are paralleled with the grand patrons of the 18th century. Various types of visitors (tourists, artists, politicians) are described, and then single historic visitors are analysed: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe as meticulously observing, learned traveller, Sir John Soane as extravagant collector and architect, and — with special emphasis — William Hamilton. This section is enriched by many quotations from their travel diaries and with works by Johann Heinrich Tischbein, Giovanni Battista Piranesi and John P. Gandy. The development of the single characters is embedded into the historical events around them, thus creating a vivid and authentic picture of the time. Hamilton is hailed as the first institutional collector and protector of the Pompeian cause — though this leaves unmentioned that Hamilton’s stance towards buying and exploiting antiquities would only very selectively fit modern ideas of conservation and protection. The digressions on his family background as well as the slightly apologetic passage on his position within the Nelson-Emma-Hamilton trio (pp. 160/167) seem to be unnecessary for the general argument of the book.

The final section is devoted to “The Legacy of Pompeian Style”. It tackles the question what constitutes Pompeian style from two modern perspectives: through backdrops of Pompeian wall decoration in 1780s to 1880s European interior designs and through the cubiculum from the Villa of Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale, on display in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. A tour through the early publications of Pompeian antiquities follows, mentioning Sir William Gell, Wilhelm Zahn, and François Mazois. This takes up a theme presented earlier in section II on the rediscovery of the Campanian towns.

The emergence of Neoclassical styles throughout Europe is outlined, as well as the various forms of Pompeian and Etruscan styles in interior design. The development in England forms the centre, with brief mentions of Russia and Prussia. Again, Sir John Soane appears, along with Robert Adam and Karl Friedrich Schinkel, as role model architects who applied and refined these styles. Houses like Sir John Soane’s Museum in London and Ickworth in Suffolk are presented, but other striking examples of the diffusion of Pompeian styles in 18th and 19th century Europe, e.g. the Pompeianeum in Aschaffenburg, are missing.

In all, the book is positioned in a fruitful niche left open by the various recent publications on Pompeian life or its excavation,8 as well as studies on the diffusion of ancient art in the wake of the Grand Tour.9

This intermediate position also applies to the book’s methodological structures, offering newcomers to the field an easy access: sound text-book information and smart excursuses into current archaeological research are intertwined with a popular scientific enthusiasm for the exotics of Pompeian life and — on the downside — with some unnecessarily misleading analogies.

Though the single chapters are well structured, it is puzzling that the modern rediscovery of Pompeii with which the book starts is taken up again in the last two sections. This leads to a series of lacunas and also repetitions throughout the book which leave a reader dealing with selective points unsatisfied and can be tiring when read from beginning to end. The sections on the Grand Tour and the Pompeian style in the modern era would have been more effective when put into direct context of the excavation’s history.

CA and BC could have made some of their objectives stronger: given that the aim of the book is to preserve what is still left of Pompeii, the title, “The Lost World” seems counterproductive. Also, the chapters feed on only very few and very popular monuments in Pompeii, e.g. the Villa dei Misteri. Here, a glimpse of the diversity of design and decoration within the urban setting would have heightened appreciation for the importance of the whole city.

The perils of mass tourism, as underlined by W-H in the introduction, would have been more obvious if the illustrations of Pompeii in the book were not completely free of visitors. Also, the atmospheric pictures of the ruins less document their alarming state than entice the reader to go there and become part of the Pompeii experience. However, given that this then will bring money into the rescue funds via admission tickets, the peaceful illustrations might be part of CA’s and BC’s strategy.

Finally, on the general presentation: the book is richly illustrated with new photographs by Chris Caldicott, many of which however appear blurred — probably due to the scale in which they are reproduced.


1. F. Coarelli (ed.), Pompei, la vita ritrovata (2003).

2. A. Schnapp, La conquête du passé (1993) 242-247; P.G. Guzzo (ed.), Pompei. Scienza e Società (2001).

3. H.A.A.P. Geertman, Lo studio della città antica. Vecchi e nuovi approcci, in: P.G. Guzzo (ed.), Pompei. Scienza e società (2001) 131-135.

4. A. Wallace-Hadrill, Houses and Society in Pompeii (1994).

5. A. Mau, Zur Geschichte der decorativen Wandmalerei in Pompeji (1882).

6. On the difficulties and dangers of naming Roman rooms: E.W. Leach, Oecus on Ibycus: Investigating the Vocabulary of the Roman House, in: S.E. Bon and R. Jones (edd.), Sequence and Space in Pompeii (1997) 50-72.

7. Recently: K.S. Painter, The Silver Treasure. The Insula of Menander in Pompeii 2.1 (2001).

8. See above n. 1; J. Berry (ed.), Unpeeling Pompeii (1998); E. Gazda (ed.), The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii. Ancient ritual – modern muse (2000).

9. E.g. A. Wilton and I. Bignamini (edd.), The Grand Tour. The Lure of Italy in the Eighteenth Century (1996).