You are here

From Paris to Pompeii: French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology

From Paris to Pompeii: French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology

By Göran Blix. Pp. 310, figs. 16. University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 2008. $59.95. ISBN 978-08122-4136-5 (cloth).

Reviewed by

In From Paris to Pompeii: French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology, Blix offers his readers an original vision of archaeology as a determining influence in postrevolutionary French culture. As the subtitle hints and the author emphasizes, this is neither a history of 19th-century French archaeology nor a descriptive portrayal of the unearthing of Pompeii. Instead, in this reworking of his 2004 Columbia dissertation (“The Discourse of Resurrection in French Romanticism: Pompeii, Archeology, and the Reconstructive Gaze”), the author examines the ramifications of the French romantic conception of archaeology as a “science of memory” (6). Essential to Blix’s thesis is his positioning of a modern “archaeological gaze” (7) at the center rather than on the periphery of postrevolutionary historical thought. This was made possible by a paradigm shift within history itself—as a romantic vision of the past superseded that of neoclassicism. Blix argues that for French culture, simultaneously emerging from the experience of violent social change and experiencing an inexorable flagging of religious faith, the myth of archaeology “affirmed that nothing perishes, that earthly existence itself embodies a form of immortality, and that the tragic historicity of modern life carries with it a secular ontology that neutralizes its fragile and fugitive character” (7).

In the exposition of his argument, Blix makes ample use of the rich variety of available sources, drawing from across the breadth of French literature (Chateaubriand, Hugo, Balzac, and Gautier), integrating representative historical writing (Thierry, Michelet, and Renan), as well as a handful of examples from the visual arts. After a brief but indispensable introduction, the author divides his presentation into seven chapters that read like separate but related essays, progressing, as he says, from the concrete to the theoretical. In these, he turns frequently to perceptions of Pompeii in contemporary thought, which he finds especially appropriate. Having been buried by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius and thus preserved for posterity, the ancient Campanian town “embodied a contradiction that lay at the heart of archaeology’s power of enchantment,” and offered “an irresistible melodramatic script for the comprehension of history” (6).

To begin, Blix guides the reader from the demise of Renaissance-style antiquarianism to the rise, early in the 19th century, of a nearly religious belief in archaeology’s potential for preserving memory and with this the corresponding appearance of the archaeologist as romantic hero. In constructing his argument, the author accentuates the contrast between antiquarianism and postrevolutionary archaeology, but as Glyn Daniel remarked long ago, this disparity can be overdrawn (The Origins and Growth of Archaeology [Harmondsworth 1967]). As an example, the censure of Winckelmann’s use of the term schätze in his Sendschreiben von den Herculanischen Entdeckungen of 1762 (Dresden) seems especially misplaced (12–13). Further, Blix also compresses the gestation of scientific archaeology to fit his thesis, for this did not take place in France until well into the second half of the century. That is not to say, however, that the myth of archaeology may not have appeared long before the fact.

Particularly noteworthy is Blix’s contention that the appearance of romantic archaeology coincided with a new privileging of artifactual over textual evidence, marking a critical transition in the innate value of historical data, a sort of final conclusion to the querelle des Anciens et des Modernes. Freed from the text-bound, idealizing aesthetic perspective of neoclassicism, artifacts now exposed the elemental strangeness of the past and urged the archaeologist (and historian) to identify the object’s proper place in the culture that produced it. In this way, inquiry into the nature of past civilizations surfaced “as the invisible but true object of excavation” (48). Yet the emergence of the new category of “nonverbal evidence” meant that archaeology “would be an updated type of philology.... [It] may force stones to speak, but to some extent this speech remains originary and authentic, irreducibly attached to the material vestige, emanating, as it were, from the thing itself” (58).

The prioritization of the artifact almost inevitably helped fuel the rapid development of the museum, with its wider cultural-political role in setting forth national identity. However, it also encouraged the emergence of a contrary, almost utopian concept of heritage, calling for the presentation or preservation of objects in their original contexts. Blix contrasts the continued despoiling of Pompeii—and, even more, Herculaneum—in the first part of the century with its revitalization from the 1860s under Fiorelli. The excavated town became the museum, and thus, “a new reality, the ancient city itself, could emerge into view, and more broadly the civilization it embodied” (71). But Pompeii would have remained moribund had not the material culture of its daily life, viewed through the filter of 19th-century bourgeois experience, led visitors and writers to people the town with an imagined society of anonymous citizens, the outcome creating what Blix terms an “illusion of presence” (86). Here, one arrives at the heart of the archaeological enterprise: “To excavate a civilization was not just to recover its debris or conjure up a fascinating illusion.... Archaeology resurrected the past: this metaphor was perhaps implicit in the act of digging, but in the nineteenth century the mere discovery of vestiges came to coincide with their resurrection” (86 [emphasis original]).

In the second part of the book, Pompeii is left aside temporarily as the subject shifts to the poetics of resurrection and, one might say, the roots of archaeological reconstruction in the romantic imagination. Blix first seeks to define the “visual imperative” (106) employed by authors to convince their readers that they were spectators to a long-ago event, as exemplified by Gautier’s illusionary prose in Le Roman de la Momie. Through literary visual imagery, the past could be revisited in the present, their merger offering both a spectral restoration of memory and a protection against its loss. How this phantom illusion could be embodied is addressed by Blix in the fifth chapter, where he ascribes it to a specifically early romantic tripartite analytic process moving from the imagining of missing parts by intuitive insight to the reassembly of fragments into a whole (like the assembled vestiges in Lenoir’s Musée des Monuments Français), and, finally, to its incarnation, the literary role of which could “range in intensity from a vague background symbolism to a full-fledged personification” (141).

The author devotes much of the final part of this book to an inquiry into the more metaphysical implications of the archaeological myth. The deeply pessimistic quality of romantic thought, reflected in the contemporary vogue for catastrophism and a fascination with dead civilizations, was compounded by the failure of religious faith and the realization that history was progressive and linear, excluding all possibility of return. As expressed by de Musset’s image in Confession d’un enfant du siècle (Paris 1836), France lay within an “abyss between an expired past and an unrealized future” (161). Blix seeks to show that such negative sentiment found a counterbalance in the notion of the lost world inspired by a century of excavation from Pompeii to Knossos: “The romantic era invented the lost world, because it needed a myth that could at once express a sense of irreparable loss and miraculous recovery, of catastrophe and retrieval, of entropy and the archive” (159). Aware that memory could not be stored safely in the imagination, man-made monuments, or even the written word, the 19th century staked its expectations elsewhere, in the survival of the contents of what Blix terms the “archive.”

Drawing a parallel between the mid century invention of prehistory and Hugo’s descrip-tion of the Parisian sewers in Les Misèrables, he identifies the content of the archive as “overlooked debris” (182)—in fact, the archaeological record in its widest possible sense. Employing the words “trace” and “imprint” to describe these data, and admitting their ambiguity, he explains, “the trace is a violent imprint, while the imprint is a gentle trace, one destroys, while the other preserves, one is action, the other reception” (187). They are intangible past facts situated in the interval between total oblivion and utopian conservation; the trace, “accessible only through interpretation in hindsight,” provides the archaeologist/historian with “a metaphysical guarantee of the past’s reality and reproducibility” (188). Here, Pompeii supplied telling examples: wheel tracks left by vanished carriages, marks of lost utensils, voids left in the ash by vaporized bodies. Ideologically sensitive, the concept of the archive evolved over the 19th century, and Blix is careful to follow its development from the emotive to the empirical, and finally to enter the unconscious mind: romantic, positivist, modernist—the myth of archaeology was basic to all three (191).

Attention shifts in the final chapter to the use of the “rhetoric of archaeology as a sort of period grammar” (200) in the areas of political, aesthetic, and social renewal. The examination here is restricted to specific examples, such as the liberal “nationalization of the past” and the use of the patrimoine as a “partisan weapon” (202). Archaeology’s provision of self-serving bourgeois models for the arts (as evident in Prince Napoleon’s Parisian Pompeian mansion), and Michelet’s populist metaphor of the French people as regenerative barbarians are also discussed. Picking up Michelet’s theme, Blix turns in conclusion to the topos of the volcano in explaining the breaking up of the romantic notion of archaeology toward the end of the 19th century. The revolutions of 1830 and 1848, and especially the Paris Commune in 1871, undermined the belief in a utopian archive and eroded the archaeological myth of Pompeii by foregrounding the existence of “an alien force that cannot be temporalized, humanized, or molded,” a darkness that “abolishes identity and negates the logic of history” (234). Fin de siècle French society came to realize that it was literally “dancing on a volcano” (230).

Because of the volume’s literary focus, several major figures, such as Guizot and Arcisse de Caumont, remain on the sidelines, and some important aspects of the development of French archaeology are neglected. The first of these is the structuring role of the state, largely at the instigation of Guizot, using his unique position under the July Monarchy to stage-manage the politics of heritage. Also discussed too briefly in Blix’s account is the role of the several national and many local societies savants that grew up from the 1830s onward. Though no doubt motivated in part by romantic historicism, the archaeological research conducted or published by these bodies—the members of which were as often as not bourgeois, conservative, and Catholic—was in practice what might be termed “neo-antiquarian.” The importance of the work at Alasia and Bibracte subscribed by Napoleon III as signaling the start of full-scale protohistoric and Gallo-Roman excavation is also slighted. In addition, except for passing mentions of the Napoleonic Egyptian expedition, or of Khorsabad, Nineveh, and Petra, the scope of the volume—when not Parisian—is limited to metropolitan France. There is no mention of French North Africa, where the continued impetus of Pompeii as exemplar motivated the unearthing of entire urban centers, such as Tipasa or Timgad. These comments are minor, however, and it must be said that if a complete account of the development of archaeology in 19th-century France is yet to be written, Blix’s work has done much to lay the foundations.

Walter Berry
National Center for Scientific Research
University of Burgundy, Dijon
21000 Dijon

Book Review of From Paris to Pompeii: French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology, by Göran Blix

Reviewed by Walter Berry

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 2 (April 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1142.Berry

Add new comment

Plain text

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