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Vesuviana: Archeologie a confronto. Atti del convegno internazionale (Bologna, 14–16 gennaio 2008)

July 2011 (115.3)

Book Review

Vesuviana: Archeologie a confronto. Atti del convegno internazionale (Bologna, 14–16 gennaio 2008)

Edited by Antonella Coralini (Studi e Scavi 23). Pp. 896, numerous b&w and color figs., CD-ROMs 2. Ante Quem, Bologna 2009. €90. ISBN 978-88-7849-043-7 (cloth).

Reviewed by

Confronted with a volume comprising 77 articles by almost 150 authors, the reader’s heart goes out to the editor. But the University of Bologna also deserves an accolade for issuing, with this tome, the birth certificate of “nuova Pompeianistica” and for substantiating a new approach to the archaeology, and particularly the archaeometry, of the buried cities of Vesuvius.

In her introduction, Coralini presents as a case study the technicalities of the project Domus Herculanensis Rationes—a project methodologically akin to the Häuser in Pompeji project—and offers a theoretical framework for the volume, which is rooted in reflexive archaeology and in Italian philosopher Ferraris’ “documentalità,” defined as the structural human need to leave traces and record traces. While her insistence on the importance of archaeological outreach and her warning not to consider the Vesuvian cities a relevant sample of Roman urban life are echoed throughout the volume (e.g., sections II.3.11, I.4.1, respectively), her postprocessual rhetoric is at odds with the highly positivistic contents of much of what follows.

The volume extends well beyond the Vesuvian area. Excavation reports from the past decade covering the amphitheater of Cuma, the stadium of Antoninus Pius in Puteoli, three wrecks in the ancient harbor of Naples, and the University of Tokyo’s excavations in the Villa di Augusto in Somma Vesuviana (I.1.1) are followed by observations on trenches dug without much archaeological surveillance at Villa di Poppea in Oplontis (II.1.2.2) and in the disturbed stratigraphy of the Villa Imperiale site in Pompeii (II.1.2.6). Rescue excavations in Piazza Meda in Milan (II.1.3.2) exposed frescoes from the first and fourth centuries C.E. (with parallels in Ephesos), while in Herculaneum they uncovered the ancient sewer system beneath the palaestra block and found a basement in the Casa del Rilievo di Telefo, which was deliberately backfilled in Tiberian-Claudian times (I.3.6). Results of the excavation of an aristocratic residence razed to the ground in 69 C.E. by Vespasian’s troops in Piazza Marconi in Cremona are presented in more detail and analyzed both in terms of finds (5,000 boxes of painted plaster dated to the final phase of the Second Style [II.1.3.1]) and methodology (the GIS software Tacito is used to manage the records of finds and stratigraphic units, organized in contexts, structures, and “complexes” [II.3.2]). The project Fasti Online (II.3.5), which can help disseminate archaeological “gray literature” via the Internet, deserves special mention.

The past is what we choose to preserve. Since 2001, the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Pompei, the Packard Humanities Institute, and the British School at Rome have teamed up for the Herculaneum Conservation Project (I.3.1), in which conservation is “informed by archaeological study and contributes to it” (I.3.2). A typology of the existing damage to painted surfaces and carbonized wood is presented (I.3.4), and we are reminded that 5,800 m² of decorated spaces still have no roofs whatsoever. Funds were available in the 1980s and 1990s, except that they went toward yet more excavations (I.3.5). Restoration must now also deal with Amedeo Maiuri’s reinforced concrete, which was used indiscriminately and is now decaying at a faster rate than the ancient material (I.3.3). The site as seen today is as much a creation of Maiuri’s as it is a creation of Vesuvius’ eruption. A fine analysis of the 1927–1961 excavation diaries of Maiuri’s teams from Herculaneum (I.2.3) reveals that they described the houses as restored, not as discovered. Striking examples are the Casa di Nettuno e Anfitrite, wherein objects found elsewhere were exposed, and Casa a Graticcio, where the balcony overhanging the street was omitted from the reconstruction because it did not fit Maiuri’s ideal vision of the site. Two related articles compare facade architecture in the Vesuvian cities in the light of recent research on urban iconography, for example, by Gesemann (II.1.2.8) and investigate the facade of Casa del Tramezzo di Legno, Herculaneum, with sonic and thermographic analyses ahead of restoration (II.1.4).

A number of essays consider archaeological outreach, museum experience, and curatorship of sites. Public understanding of cultural heritage is recognized as a social need, one for which archaeology is responsible; indeed, preservation of sites and artifacts is not done for the sake of the objects themselves but for the benefit of society (I.I.6, II.3.11; for the relationship between Herculaneum and groups with different interests and agendas, see I.3.8). Museums in Capua (II.1.2.1) and Bologna (II.3.1) are case studies for the potential of computer applications to improve visitors’ museum experience. Further articles argue that software applications will “compensate for the distance between museum and archaeological site” (I.1.5) and that electronic guiding devices with displays will help tourists make the most of their route (II.3.11). This positivist conviction, while recognizing how ruins can often be disappointingly mute for the layperson, underestimates the danger that such software interfaces can substitute for archaeological reality and deny tourists the unmediated experience for which they arguably came.

Archaeological sciences contribute heavily to this volume. II.2.2 offers a survey of recent knowledge of the palette, materials, and techniques of Roman painting, relying on recent research on pilae of pigments for painters—little compacted cubes, bearing the seal of the maker, found in Pompeii. Pigments of true frescoes from houses of Herculaneum are assayed with Raman microspectroscopy in II.2.2.3–4, and the examination of murals from Casa dei Cervi, Herculaneum (II.2.2.5), identifies gesso as an underpainting medium and also explains color changes (e.g., terra verde veering into red hematite). In turn, II.2.2.8 investigates conservation treatments applied to ancient paintings in the Naples museum, such as the Mariconi varnish and the Amodio varnish. The Egyptianizing skyphoi from Stabiae are identified as Ethiopian obsidian (II.1.2.7), while the archaeometry of glass tesserae from mosaics in Herculaneum (II.2.2.1) and Pompeii (II.2.2.2) establishes a chronology of the so-called sealing-wax red glass used between 120/100 B.C.E. and 60 C.E., knowledge that invalidates the Hadrianic date for the Pliny’s Doves mosaic from Tivoli. Some of the data tables presented in this section are left to be interpreted by future researchers, instead of being interpreted, so to speak, at the spectrometer’s edge. This unfortunately can make the editor’s deploration of the “technocentrism” of today’s archaeology in the prefacing study seem quite malapropos. Other notes with an art historical focus pertain to decoration in both Herculaneum (such as II.1.2.11, on still natures; II.1.2.12, on putti; II.1.2.14, on birds) and Pompeii (such as II.1.2.13, on animals in Casa del Centenario; II.1.2.3, on Casa del Bracciale d’Oro). In a complementary analysis (II.1.1.1), the paintings in the Columbarium of C. Scribonius Menophilus in Rome are dated on grounds of stylistic and typological analysis of the frescoes to 20–10 B.C.E.

The archaeometrical portée of the volume is also evident in the large number of three-dimensional reconstructions and models offered, such as those of Villa della Regina in Boscoreale (I.1.7), Casa di Arianna in Pompeii (II.3.8), Casa dello Scheletro in Herculaneum (II.3.10), and the theater in Bilbilis, Spain (I.4.5), together with models of buildings only known from literary sources. This is the case with the tent of Ptolemy Philadelphus, as described by Athenaeus (5.196a–197c), whose reconstruction shows not only the architecture (explained by Macedonian prototypes) but also the revelers on klinai and the constellations in Alexandria’s sky in 278 B.C.E. (II.3.12). Certainly the most ambitious type of three-dimensional model is created by laser scanning, illustrated here for the Insula del Centenario, Pompeii (II.2.1.5), and particularly for the largest catacomb in Rome, Domitilla (II.1.1.2). The latter, an ambitious Viennese undertaking, accounts for the first laser scan of a Roman catacomb and shows that accurate description (Domitilla did not have a proper map yet) never fails to result in discovery: the project also aimed to understand paintings in their architectural context and stumbled on the first known representation of St. Thecla in Rome. Despite their heuristic and graphic virtues, three-dimensional models produced without a strict methodology can reify and mystify the archaeological record. A discussion of the limits of reconstruction would have been required, but it is only picked up briefly in II.3.7, where such models are said to generate knowledge exclusively when correctly structured and presented. That article moves on to plead for a dynamic representation, showing, to paraphrase, the growth of the house and not the form of the house.

The vast majority of the articles are brief presentations of research published (or awaiting publication) elsewhere in full; a few are written either as grant proposals or as final reports to the funding institution. The dazzling variety of these essays (about one-third do not deal with Pompeii/Herculaneum) may render this volume difficult to use; even so, it offers all students of Vesuvian cities an up-to-date chart of trends in Italian archaeological and archaeometrical research.

Catalin Pavel
Department of Ancient History and Archaeology
University of Bucharest
Boulevard Regina Elisabeta 4–12
030018 Bucharest

Book Review of Vesuviana: Archeologie a confronto. Atti del convegno internazionale (Bologna, 14–16 gennaio 2008), edited by Antonella Coralini

Reviewed by Catalin Pavel

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 115, No. 3 (July 2011)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1153.Pavel

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