You are here

Herculaneum: Art of a Buried City

July 2015 (119.3)

Book Review

Herculaneum: Art of a Buried City

By Maria Paola Guidobaldi and Domenico Esposito. Pp. 352, figs. 339. Abbeville Press, New York 2013. $125. ISBN 978-0-7892-1146-0 (cloth).

Reviewed by

I long ago lost count of the number of beautiful “coffee-table books” devoted to Pompeii. Each new entry in that market testifies to the apparently insatiable demand by the public at large to learn more about—or possess a souvenir of a visit to—what is undeniably one of the world’s greatest archaeological sites. Herculaneum attracts fewer tourists by far, and for understandable reasons. It is a smaller site and does not have two theaters and an amphitheater, a spacious forum and a basilica, two major tomb streets, or any frescoes as famous as those of the Villa of the Mysteries. Some picture books on Pompeii include a token number of photographs and minimal discussion of Herculaneum and other towns buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, but although the excavated remains of Herculaneum are generally better preserved than Pompeii’s, there has never been a lavish, folio-sized, full-color volume of the coffee-table type on Herculaneum—until now. Herculaneum: Art of a Buried City, which appeared in 2012 in Verona as Ercolano: Colori da una città sepolta, is therefore a very welcome publication, all the more so because it is not merely a collection of gorgeous photographs (by Luciano Pedicini, whose name deserves to be on the book’s cover, but is not). This book also features an authoritative and up-to-date text by two experts: Guidobaldi, who has directed the excavations at Herculaneum since 2000, and Esposito, who has excavated Regio V, Insula 5 at Pompeii.

The volume opens with the familiar account of the destruction of the Vesuvian towns in 79 C.E. but notably includes an excellent, if brief, discussion (with illustrations) of the skeletons uncovered on the beach in the 1980s and of the jewelry, surgical instruments, and other items that those fleeing the catastrophic eruption considered their most precious possessions and hoped to retain if they made it to safety. There follows a history of the excavations that features archival photographs (among the few black-and-white illustrations in the book) and then, in turn, a survey of Herculaneum’s public and private buildings and associated finds, the most famous of which are on display in the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples. Happily, the illustrations, while including, as they should, the “usual suspects,” also reproduce many finds that are inaccessible to the public because they are not in Naples, but in Herculaneum’s Deposito Archeologico (excavation storage area). One of the latter is a Pentelic marble head of an Amazon from the Basilica Noniana with its painted hair and eyes nearly perfectly preserved.

Given that houses fill almost all of the excavated insulae of Herculaneum, it is not surprising that the core of Guidobaldi and Esposito’s volume is devoted to Roman domestic architecture, mural painting, sculpture, and furniture. Also figuring prominently are the extramural villas, including, as expected, the extraordinarily rich Villa of the Papyri, but also the Villa of the Royal Stables at Portici, a seafront villa excavated in the 18th century beneath the horse stables of the Bourbon Palazzo Reale. Among the hundreds of color photographs documenting domestic life in Herculaneum are many that present finds that are almost without parallel elsewhere, even in the other sites buried by Vesuvian lava and ash—carbonized wood partitions, doors, shelves, and chests; a wood portrait head of a woman found in the House of Wattlework (Casa a Graticcio, i.e., constructed of opus craticium); and many examples of frescoed and stuccoed walls and ceilings from the upper floors of buildings—a rarity at Pompeii. Of special note are the photographs of little-reproduced but important examples of Campanian painting, such as those in the House of the Tuscan Colonnade (Casa del Colonnato Tuscanico), the House of the Black Salon (Casa del Salone Nero), and the College of the Augustales.

Also welcome is the authors’ meticulous recording of exact findspots of well-known mural fragments that are usually described as “from Herculaneum, uncertain provenance.” In this category are, for example, the famous still-lifes in Naples that come from the ambulatory of the cryptoporticus of the House of the Stags (Casa dei Cervi) and the fragmentary Fourth Style fresco depicting an imaginary scaenae frons, also in Naples, which comes from Herculaneum’s Palaestra. Noteworthy, too, is the discussion of the building usually called the Basilica and here identified as the Augusteum, which includes, in addition to an array of large photographs, a diagram of the building with 20 accompanying thumbnail photographs locating the exact positions of the excavated bronze portrait statues of Augustus and Claudius and the familiar mythological panels depicting Chiron and Achilles, Hercules and the infant Telephus, and Theseus and the Minotaur, all of which were transferred to Naples after the Bourbon excavations of the 18th century.

Herculaneum: Art of a Buried City is an all-too-rare instance of a book created to delight the eyes of a general audience that also has much to offer the scholarly community. I applaud its publication.

Fred S. Kleiner
Department of History of Art & Architecture
Boston University

Book Review of Herculaneum: Art of a Buried City, by Maria Paola Guidobaldi and Domenico Esposito

Reviewed by Fred S. Kleiner

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 119, No. 3 (July 2015)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1193.Kleiner


Regarding the observation, "although the excavated remains of Herculaneum are generally better preserved than Pompeii’s, there has never been a lavish, folio-sized, full-color volume of the coffee-table type on Herculaneum—until now. Herculaneum: Art of a Buried City" (the 2012 volume under review), I challenge. What about Wallace-Hadrell's 2011 Herculaneum: Past and Future? Or, perhaps, is this volume too scholarly and serious to count as a volume "of the coffee-table type"?
Nevertheless the review indicates this is a worthy volume worthy of my purchase. I'm guessing both volumes would go nice together on my coffee table--if only I had one.

Add new comment

Plain text

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