You are here

Letter and Report on the Discoveries at Herculaneum

Letter and Report on the Discoveries at Herculaneum

By Johann Joachim Winckelmann. Translated by Carol C. Mattusch. Pp. x + 230, figs. 156. Getty Publications, Los Angeles 2011. $50. ISBN 978-1-60606-0789-6 (paper).

Reviewed by

This translation of Winckelmann’s two writings specifically concerned with the excavation of Herculaneum, his Letter and subsequent Report, is by Mattusch, who is well known for her work on the statues found in the buried city and, in particular, for her detailed and scholarly presentation of those from the Villa of the Papyri at Herculaneum (The Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum: Life and Afterlife of a Sculpture Collection [Los Angeles 2005]) and as editor of a number of exhibition catalogues. The two publications here translated, although apparently addressed to individuals, were intended for the general public. In 1738, Carlo III, King of the Two Sicilies, had appointed a Spanish military engineer, Roque Joaquín de Alcubierre, to conduct the excavation of the city of Herculaneum, buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 C.E. The entire undertaking was really to enable the king to stock his cabinet and ensure that he had a unique collection.

The city had first been discovered in 1710 by the Prince d’Elboeuf when digging a well, which had resulted in the discovery of various marble slabs and three statues. These statues eventually were taken to Dresden, where they were exhibited, and it was in this city that Winckelmann first saw them in 1754. From 1738, the excavation of Herculaneum continued as a military operation, basically by tunneling and extracting items. The king jealously guarded these treasures and would not permit access to them except under very strict conditions. Special permission had to be obtained by persons wishing to see them, thereby increasing the collection’s rarity and attraction.

The excavation continued until the mid 1760s, though in later years interest switched to Pompeii, where work had begun in 1748 and the access was much easier. To call it excavation in the modern sense is misleading, since the entire operation was more of a treasure hunt. Alcubierre’s assistant, Carl Weber, was a much more thorough and competent excavator and drew careful plans, especially of the Villa of the Papyri, which he was responsible for work on. His plan has remained invaluable to later generations, not least to those who have been working on the villa in recent years. The finds were eventually published in 10 folio volumes between 1757 and 1831 as Le anti­chità di Ercolano esposte (Naples), but like access to the king’s cabinet at Portici, the volumes were of strictly limited availability, not on sale but presented as diplomatic gifts. In the mid 18th century, Winckelmann was living in Dresden, and he saw the three statues that were exhibited there and commented on them in his Reflections on the Imitation of Greek Works in Painting and Sculpture published in 1755. In that year, he visited Rome, where he remained for some years, latterly as librarian to Cardinal Albani.

From Rome he visited Naples, then a separate Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, on four occasions. The first occasion was in January and February 1762, when he was accompanied by the 19-year-old son of Count Heinrich von Brühl to whom the Letter, which is the first of the two publications here translated, is addressed. In it, Winckelmann did not hesitate to criticize Alcubierre and his mining activities, and he memorably stated that the military engineer knew as little about antiquities as the moon did about crayfish. The Letter is especially concerned with the methods of excavation and preservation of the objects found and pays particular attention to the papyri and ancient methods of book production. Only four rolls had been unrolled at this time. The work also acts as a guide to the cabinet and seems to have been intended for visitors who had gained permission to see the collection.

The second work here translated, the Report, was published in 1764 and dedicated to the Swiss politician and historian Johann Heinrich Fuessli, who accompanied Winckelmann on his third visit to Herculaneum. In this, he elaborates on the theater and gives further details on the statues and the portraits that he had already mentioned in the Letter.

Mattusch has preceded each of the two works here translated by a detailed introduction, outlining the historical circumstances and also discussing Winckelmann’s other works. It is well illustrated with reproductions from Le antichità di Ercolano esposte, as was the original Letter, though not the Report, and is plentifully supplied with notes. It is an important addition to the history of the early excavation, now made much more widely accessible, since there has never been an English translation of the Report, and the only English translation of the Letter was published in 1771. It thus constitutes the only modern version of the work, other than Strazzullo’s Le scoperte di Ercolano (Naples 1981), in a language other than German, and an English version renders the work accessible to a far greater readership.

The notes and lengthy introductions are especially welcome and give a very clear picture of the history of the excavation of the cities destroyed by Vesuvius and the problems of access both to the excavations themselves and the artifacts discovered there, on account of the strict secrecy surrounding access and the limited availability of the contemporary publications that discuss the finds. Mattusch provides a clear exposition for those who are unfamiliar with the history of the early days of work on the city, and the whole presents the original in a thoroughly readable form, giving a lively picture of work in the Bay of Naples in the 18th century. The text reads smoothly and fills a long-standing gap in the material, which discusses the early years of the excavation of Herculaneum.

I.C. McIlwaine
Deptartment of Information Studies
University College London
London WC1E 6BT
United Kingdom

Book Review of Letter and Report on the Discoveries at Herculaneum, by Johann Joachim Winckelmann

Reviewed by I.C. McIlwaine

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 116, No. 4 (October 2012)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1164.McIlwaine

Add new comment

Plain text

  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.