Excavations of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae  

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Vesuvius in Eruption (1817-20) by William Turner
Vesuvius in Eruption (1817-20) by William Turner

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

After the 79 eruption of the Mount Vesuvius, the ancient Roman cities of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae were entirely buried in volcanic ash. For centuries the sites were abandoned and eventually their names and locations were almost forgotten. The towns were finally discovered in 1599 by the architect Domenico Fontana, who was digging a new course for the river Sarno, but it would take more than 150 years before a serious campaign was started to unearth them.

Around 1709, the Herculaneum was discovered by Emmanuel Maurice, Duke of Elbeuf and partly raided. Thirty years later, in 1738 its uncovering was started by workmen working on the foundation of the Palace of Portici, a summer palace of for the Charles III of Spain.

Pompeii was rediscovered as the result of intentional excavations in 1748 by the Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre working in the service of Charles III. Pompeii and Herculaneum have since been excavated to reveal many intact buildings and wall paintings.

The ubiquity of erotic art in Pompeii and Herculaneum caused a culture shock and led to an unknown number of discoveries being hidden away. A wall fresco which depicted Priapus, the ancient god of sex and fertility, with his extremely enlarged penis, was covered with plaster, even the older reproduction below was locked away "out of prudishness" and only opened on request and only rediscovered in 1998 due to rainfall.

In 1819, when King Francis I of Naples visited the Pompeii exhibition at the National Museum with his wife and daughter, he was so embarrassed by the erotic artwork that he decided to have it locked away in a secret cabinet. That secret museum is now a part of the main museum.


Chronological list of influential people in the history of the excavations

Domenico Fontana

Some have theorized that Domenico Fontana (1543 – 1607) found some of the famous erotic frescoes and, due to the strict modesty prevalent during his time, reburied them in an attempt at archaeological censorship. This view is bolstered by reports of later excavators who felt that sites they were working on had already been visited and reburied. Even many recovered household items had a sexual theme.

Giovanni Battista Nocerino

Giovanni Battista Nocerino

Giovanni Battista Nocerino was an Italian farmer and land owner. In 1709/10 he discoverd alabaster and yellow marble (marmo giallo antico) that would later prove to be from the lost city Herculaneum. He sold his land to Prince l'Elboeuf who would continue the subterranean exploration.

Emmanuel Maurice, Duke of Elbeuf

Emmanuel Maurice, Duke of Elbeuf

Emmanuel Maurice de Lorraine (Emmanuel Maurice; 30 December 1677–17 July 1763) was Duke of Elbeuf and Prince of Lorraine. In 1709 or 1710, while constructing Palace of Portici, he discovered the ruins at Herculaneum via Nocerino. One of his first finds were the Herculaneum Women.

Charles III of Spain

Charles III of Spain

Charles III (1716 – 1788) was the King of Spain and the Spanish Indes from 1759 to his death in 1788. It was during his rule that the Roman cities of Herculaneum (1738), Stabiae and Pompeii (1748) were excavated. Charles took great interest in the findings even after becoming king of Spain because the display of antiquities reinforced the political and cultural power of Naples. Working for him doing the actual excavations was Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre.

Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre

Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre

In 1738 the Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre (1702–1780) was working on the palace for Charles III of Spain when ancient Roman artifacts were being discovered. Alcubierre took charge of the excavations, initially at Herculaneum, then, in 1748 excavations began at a new site believed to be Stabiae, only later identified as Pompeii. Alcubierre left the detailed excavation work to his assistants, initially Karl Jakob Weber, then from 1764 Fransesco la Vega, but remained in overall charge of the excavations around Vesuvius until his death in 1780.

Karl Jakob Weber

Karl Jakob Weber

Karl Jakob Weber (1712 — 1764) was a Swiss architect and engineer who was in charge of the first organized excavations of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae, under the patronage of Charles III of Spain . His detailed drawings provided some of the basis for the luxurious royal folios of Le Antichità di Ercolano Esposte, by means of which the European intelligentsia became aware of the details of what was being recovered.

Weber's unwilling collaborator was the cavaliere Rocco de Alcubierre, previously in charge of the excavations, whose treasure-hunting technique provided the fine bronzes and other works of art that kept royal patronage stimulated. Alcubierre was jealous of Weber, treated his system of excavating whole rooms with a concern for context that makes him a heroic forerunner of today's architectural profession, and attempted to sabotage Weber's his work. On Weber's death, the architect Francisco La Vega was put in charge of excavations.

Weber's plan of the still-buried Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum, which was being explored room by room by smashing openings through frescoed walls, is still the basis of our understanding of its layout, which was echoed in the construction of the J. Paul Getty Museum, Malibu, California.

Franscisco la Vega

Franscisco la Vega

On the death of Karl Weber he was followed in 1764 by military engineer Franscisco la Vega. Franscisco la Vega was succeeded by his brother, Pietro, in 1804. During the French occupation Pietro worked with Christophe Saliceti.

Pietro la Vega

Pietro la Vega

Pietro la Vega (died 1810) was a Spanish archaeologist and artist known for his drawings of the ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae.

Originally, like his brother Franscisco la Vega, Pietro was a military engineer. He was also a trained cartographer. Beginning in 1764 he worked with his brother, Francisco, who at that time was appointed as the director of excavations for Ferdinand, the Bourbon king of Naples. In 1804, when Francisco died, Pietro la Vega took over as director. Pietro la Vega was a very thorough and meticulous excavator, who kept copious notes. As a result he made it possible for François Mazois (Carlo Francesco Mazois) to produce in 1824 the most complete report and synthesis ever published on Pompeii.

Giuseppe Fiorelli

Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the excavations in 1860. He catalogued his findings, reserving a special section for the so-called "Raccolta pornografica." During early excavations of the site, occasional voids in the ash layer had been found that contained human remains. It was Fiorelli who realized these were spaces left by the decomposed bodies and so devised the technique of injecting plaster into them to perfectly recreate the forms of Vesuvius's victims. What resulted were highly accurate and eerie forms of the doomed Pompeiani who failed to escape, in their last moment of life, with the expression of terror often quite clearly visible. This technique is still in use today, with a clear resin now used instead of plaster because it is more durable, and does not destroy the bones, allowing further analysis. Discoveries made by Fiorelli:

Timeline of discoveries since 1860[1]

Discoveries made by Fiorelli:

  • House of Siricus (1862)
  • House of the Hanging Balcony (1862)
  • Marine Gate (1863)
  • Vicolo del Lupanare (1863)
  • House of M. Lucretius Stabia (1871)
  • Temple of Venus
  • House of Epidius Sabinus
  • House of the Citharist
  • House of Epidius Rufus

Discoveries made by Ruggero:

  • House of L. Caecilius Jucundus (1875-76)
  • Central Baths (1877-78)
  • House of the Centenary (1879-80)
  • House of the Silver Wedding (1891-93)
  • Tombs along via Nolana (1886-87)
  • Tombs along The Stabian Way (1889)

Discoveries made between 1893 and 1910:

  • House of the Vettii (1894-95)
  • House of M. Lucretius Fronto (1895)
  • House of the Golden Cupids (1895; 1903-5)
  • Stretch of wall between towers X and XI (1897-99)
  • Temple of Venus Pompeiana (1897-98)
  • Samplings at the Temple of Jupiter (1897-98)
  • Samplings at the Temple of Apollo (1897-98)
  • Samplings outside the Vesuvian Gate (1897)
  • Castellum aquae at the Vesuvian Gate (1901-2)
  • House of the Ara Massima (1903)
  • House of the Gladiators (1899; 1905-6)

See also

Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery, classical archaeology, First descriptions of the excavations of the Herculaneum

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