Pompeii has been an archaeological dig site for longer than it was a Roman town.
Giorgio Sommer was a famous German photographer who photographed Pompeii in the 19th century. All of the images from this post are his.
I took a seminar on Pompeii in grad school with the brilliant and wonderful John Dobbins, where I learned more than I thought was possible cram into this tiny little brain. I also got to meet some pretty rad art history kids, doing fabulously cool things. Can't we all just learn stuff forever? Ah, love it.
So in preparation for being in Pompeii in like a week, I figured I would try to dig up my old paper for the class. 26 pages of nothin but the good stuff. Much to my chagrin, Weebly doesn't support footnotes (blasphemy), so you'll just have to take my word for it I guess. Anyway, here is the very abbreviated version of what I found on my external hard drive - early archaeology at Pompeii to lay the groundwork [PUN], and Giorgio Sommer.
Early Archaeology at Pompeii
Pompeii was rediscovered to the Western world in 1748, with huge cultural ramifications. The ancient Roman town was well preserved by ash and lapilli from the historic eruption in 79 CE, and under the auspices of the Grand Tour and Neoclassicist ideology, excavations and cultural tourism gained extreme popularity. Excavations were more focused on recovery and investigation of objects than they were on material conservation or preservation of the site. This often included extraction, alteration, or total removal from the site, which resulted in the distribution and sale of paintings, amphorae, and other items from the city.
The excavations at Herculaneum were initiated by Charles VII of Bourbon, who had been looking to decorate a summer palace in the region, and sought to use objects from antiquity from the locally known site. The site was surveyed and plundered in keeping with methods at the time, focused more on appropriation and consumption as means of study. Steps were taken in the late 18th century to prevent the decay of excavated buildings, though in certain cases it changed their character completely, with the addition of roofing or substantiation of wall structures. The deterioration of plaster, or the effects of weather on the now-exposed structures, would progress at an exponential rate as the site was open to the air.
During this phase of archaeology and investigation, reconstructions and restorations were based on individual preference, even into the late 19th century. A translated version of later archaeologist August Mau’s [important Pompeii scholar] work noted “The restorations are not fanciful. They were made with the help of careful measurements and of computations based upon the existing remains; occasionally also evidence derived from reliefs and wall paintings was utilized. Uncertain details are generally omitted.”
Giuseppe Fiorelli’s tenure as superintendent of the site from 1863-1875 ushered in great changes to methods of stewardship in Pompeii. He implemented a top-down excavation method, which would preserve objects in their place and allow for better reconstruction. He devised a plan that divided the city into 9 regions for organized study, a system which is still used today. Scholars from around the world were invited to work, with access no longer limited by political, social, or otherwise arbitrary restrictions. Fiorelli was instrumental to the development of the excavations in Pompeii, as his methods were carried into the beginning of the 20th century.
Under his guidance, plaster casts were made of cavities left by organic materials. Throughout the history of the city’s excavation, people have had a grim fascination with the morbid at Pompeii. At Pompeii, human remains were discovered briefly after excavations began, but the creation of plaster casts lent a three-dimensional, humanizing form to what could have only been skeletal remains and open cavities. Pouring plaster into the spaces left by people entrapped in the volcanic debris left some gruesome and often tragic impressions. At the time, these were found so captivating that the human elements of these figures were enhanced by sculptors, embellishing the forms with folds of cloth, or with anatomical figures like ears, appendages, or musculature that would certainly not have existed at the time of their discovery. This presentation, playing on a fascination with the morose or grotesque, added a tragic human element to the narrative presented at the site that viewers found compelling.
Pro tip: archaeologists today will most likely spin kick you in the face
if you try to pour plaster into their stuff.
Photography + Pompeii
Man I wrote a lot in this section. To sum it up:
There were scholarly investigations of Pompeii, there were tourist leaflets made, and there were architectural / archaeological photographs taken. Giorgio Sommer was definitely not the first person (or the only person) taking photos at Pompeii during this period.
Names to know:
Giorgio Sommer (1834-1914) was a prolific and renowned German photographer in the 19th century. From 1857 to 1888, he produced thousands of photos of archaeological sites, objects, and portraits. Over the course of his career he had studios in Switzerland, Naples, and Rome, won many awards, and was even appointed official photographer to Victor Emmanuel II of Italy. [He produced absolutely stunning images of Naples, but some of the COOLEST photos he took were in Pompeii.]
Pompeii had been seen as a cultural symbol and a point of fascination for over a hundred years when Sommer arrived. Its archaeological management had shifted considerably, with new discoveries and interpretations changing an understanding of the site, even as he worked there. Though his photography was not intended to serve archaeology in a strict sense, as Brogi’s would have, it was part of a more in depth, developing conversation that served to elevate the status of Pompeii in international spheres. The publication and sale of his photos brought him recognition, and helped to circulate chosen views of the city.
While a trained eye could pull factual information from these photos, that is not their only intent. These photos serve not only as “documents,” “evidence,” or products for consumption, but as works of art that fit within a layered history. Sommer’s photos as individual art objects are important for their unusually modern aesthetic, which included flattening of perspective, compositional choice, and inclusion of strong angular and geometric resonant features.
Brain warp: these images were taken during the Civil War and Reconstruction era in the United States, right before the official closing of the Western frontier. Think saloons, and Gettysburg, and also Italian unification.
[Could talk about these forever, but really - just LOOK at them.]