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Pompeii’s Living Statues: Ancient Roman Lives Stolen from Death

Pompeii’s Living Statues: Ancient Roman Lives Stolen from Death

By Eugene Dwyer. Pp. xiii + 159, figs. 49. The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor 2010. $45. ISBN 978-0-472-11727-1 (cloth).

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In the 40 years I have worked at Pompeii, unwittingly becoming a target for confused tourists, the most asked question is, “Where are the bodies?” It is perhaps not surprising that 150 years after the first cast emerged from the hardened volcanic ash, these plaster-encased skeletons still stand for the catastrophe and even represent, in the popular mind, the wonders of archaeology. Dwyer’s delightful little book, part cultural history, part historiography, admirably succeeds in providing a context for the strange and sensational practice of making plaster casts of the victims of the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

The setting is immediately after the liberation of Italy, and the chief protagonist is the charismatic Giuseppe Fiorelli. Dwyer’s approach sticks closely to the contemporary reactions recorded in guidebooks and journals, analyzing the interpretations that their writers forged from the undeniable evidence provided by the casts. In so doing, he provides a level of detail and accuracy not available in other accounts. Drawing on his own collection of photographic sources (cartes de visite, postcards, and photographs), he makes the remarkable diffusion of the casting phenomenon concrete. It is, in fact, the tension between the two media, one objective and three-dimensional (the casts themselves), the other two-dimensional and subject to the vagaries of reproduction (the photographic images of the casts and the drawings made after them), that constitutes the central thesis of the book.

Dwyer begins his account with what he calls the forerunners of the casts: the discovery and display of skeletons. In particular, those found by Francesco la Vega in the Villa of Diomedes in 1772 suggested the possibility of making casts, since the impressions made by the decomposed bodies were particularly marked. Following a valuable overview of the administration of the ruins and treatment of human remains at Pompeii throughout the following century, he introduces the mystery of the casts made of the folding house doors described in 1859 by Ivanoff (“Varie specie di soglie in Pompei ed indagine sul vero sito della fauce,” Annali dell’Instituo di Corrispondenza Archeologica 31 [1859] 82–108). A forerunner of the casts of victims, the cast of the doors (from the Shop of the Dyer [VIII.4.1/53]) was the first item illustrated in the first volume of Fiorelli’s Giornale degli scavi di Pompeii in 1861.

In the following two chapters, Dwyer carefully chronicles the casting of victims, beginning with Victim 1 (3 February 1863) through Victim 16 (1890). Dwyer posits that Fiorelli’s excavations, and especially his project of resurrecting ancient Pompeians through the casts and their display at Pompeii, constituted “an artifact of the Risorgimento” (113). His account of the casts ends there, since at this point Fiorelli had been called to Rome, and the little museum he had created, located under the Temple of Venus, was overfull and ready for renovation.

Particularly admirable is Dwyer’s careful reconstruction of just how this daring experiment in archaeological reconstruction came about: the personalities, the reactions of the press, and the technical difficulties of obtaining good casts. The chief personality, of course, is Fiorelli himself, dynamic director of the excavations at Pompeii. By carefully assessing the written sources, Dwyer gives us a fascinating mini-biography of Fiorelli. Also useful are Dwyer’s account of Fiorelli’s museum set up at Pompeii principally to show the casts and his analysis of the techniques used to display them. Of course it was not just the display of the casts at Pompeii that created the excitement, it was the popularization of the photograph. With the discovery of the wet plate, or collodion-on-glass negative, photographers could produce multiple images from the same negative. These photographs quickly found a market niche that successfully competed with the more usual tourist souvenirs—engravings and aquatints with views of the city and its buildings. Entrepreneurial photographers such as Giorgio Sommer and Michele Amodio even posed the casts in evocative settings; one of Sommer’s photographs shows Victims 2 and 3 reclining on a terrace overlooking Regio VI (fig. 11). Relatively inexpensive and more sensational than other visual representations, these early photographs set the tone for touristic understanding of the damned city, and the “bodies” became synonymous for Pompeii—a phenomenon that endures to this day.

Dwyer’s tantalizingly brief account of contemporary reactions in chapter 3 (“Second Thoughts”) stops short of analyzing in depth the effect the casts had on fiction: paintings, novels, poems, and operas of the last decades of the 19th century. This, of course, would take him into less provable but perhaps not less important aspects of the reception of the “frozen bodies” phenomenon. A second, closely related area that would reward further investigation is an exploration of the erotics of viewing. Although Dwyer does mention that some of the accounts eroticized the victims, it would be helpful to cite some of the theoretical literature concerning the erotic/eroticized gaze in this period. In particular, a further exploration of the dynamics of human-statue interaction put forward by Freedberg (The Power of Images [Chicago 1989]) and Hersey (Falling in Love with Statues [Chicago 2009]) would have been welcome.

This is a book for scholars and students of Pompeii, for the general public interested in the “bodies” phenomenon, or for those just wanting to see pictures of the first casts of the victims. It is also of interest to scholars looking for some precision about the archaeology of this first scientific work at Pompeii in the context of the haphazard treasure hunting that had gone on from 1748 to 1861.

Dwyer’s scholarship is sound, his writing engaging. The book’s brief index is quite useful, especially the entry under “Pompeii,” where he locates all the casts and the buildings discussed in the text. His bibliography is complete, although now we must add Stefani’s catalogue for an exhibition held at the Boscoreale Antiquarium in 2010 (J. Berry, trans., One at a Time: The Casts [Milan 2010]), which explores the later casts, including Amedeo Cicchitti’s technique of resin casting used in 1984 for a female victim found at Oplontis Villa B.

John R. Clarke
Department of Art and Art History
University of Texas at Austin
Austin, Texas 78712-0337

Book Review of Pompeiis Living Statues: Ancient Roman Lives Stolen from Death, by Eugene Dwyer

Reviewed by John R. Clarke

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 1 (January 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1161.Clarke

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