The Excavations at Pompeii, Neoclassical and Romantic Art

The Resurgence of an Empire: The Excavations at Pompeii and their Influence on Neoclassical and Romantic Art

In 79ADMount Vesuvius erupted burying Pompeii during the early Roman Empire, however the first excavations didn’t occur until the mid-18th century some 1,700 years later. Thus with the first archeological explorations, the long defunct Roman Empire then reached across time to exert new influence the Neoclassical and Romantic eras.

Still life with Fruit, House of Julia Felix, Pompeii, Excavated in 1755

There are many examples that can be used to link the civilizations of the Roman Empire with that of the 18th and 19th century through the rediscovery of vast amounts art. With each new discovery during the excavations the splendor of Rome inspired modern art and culture.

Excavations under the Bourbon King Charles III

In 1738 when the Bourbon King Charles III was King of Naples, his military engineer Alcubierre discovered the site at Herculaneum while planning a new Royal hunting palace.  Those excavations led to the discovery of Pompeii in 1748.  Alcubierre remained the director of the project through 1780.  At the time the royal family had no idea that Pompeii was so vast that over 250 years later archeologists would still be unearthing the city.

Still life Wall Painting, House of Julia Felix, Pompeii, Excavated in 1755

Each phase of excavation can be seen as tying in with the leadership of Naples at the time, in 1748 it was the Bourbon King Charles III, a lover of antiquity.  During his reign the Archeological Museum in Naples was founded to house the large Farnese collection of antique sculptures he would inherit from his Italian mother, Elisabetta Farnese.  The museum grew to house the art from the Vesuvian excavations.  Major buildings unearthed in this first period of include the House of Julia Felix in 1755 and the Villa of Cicero in 1759. 

Contemporary society was in thrall at these discoveries, particularly in how colorful and well preserved the wall paintings were.  There are very few surviving examples of Roman wall painting elsewhere and both the technical skill and decorative elements were completely astonishing to those who saw them.  Equally impressive were the large floor mosaics created with thousands of chips or rock or pebbles.

Street Musician floor mosaic, Villa of Cicero, Pompeii, Excavated in 1759-63

The unearthing of Pompeii helped spread the Neoclassical movement that had started earlier in the century.  The city became a regular stop on the “Grand Tour” that many aristocratic travelers went on.  King Charles left Naples in 1759 to rule Spain and put his third son, Ferdinand I in charge of ruling Naples.

Excavations under the Bourbon King Ferdinand I (1760-1798)

The decade of the 1760’s marked an active era of excavations including: the Necropolis, the Basilica of Herculaneum, the theaters and the Triangular Forum.  The building which had the largest influence on art and culture was the Temple of Isis, unearthed in 1764, this was the only intact Roman temple that had been found.  The cult of Isis was widespread throughout the Roman Empire at the time of the eruption.

The portico was decorated in fourth style wall paintings depicting the story of the Egyptian goddess Isis.  Many objects were found in this that inspired artists such as a full sized marble statue of Venus wringing out her hair and a bronze tripod brazier with sphinxes as legs.  The tripod in particular held a fascination for artists who faithfully copied it such as Piranesi and the French artist Pacris in 1777. 

Tripod from the Temple of Isis, Piranesi, 1770's

18thCentury Art and Architecture influenced by Pompeii

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, in particular had long been interested in Roman ruins, his etchings of which were collected by Grand Tour patrons.  His scenes of antiquity were majestic and inspiring and added to the overall taste for the Neoclassical.  In addition, Piranesi designed interior objects, some were inspired by Pompeii such as a small table designed in 1768 which uses imaginative winged animals as legs.  He took motifs from the Isis tripod and adapted the style for the Neoclassical.

Birth of Venus, Fresco from the Garden Wall at the Villa Venus Marina, Pompeii

In other design works he used ancient images and suited them 18th century tastes as seen in this example of a design for a fireplace for the Earl of Exeter in which he directly transfers the birth of Venus from a fresco on a garden wall.

Design for a Fireplace for the Earl of Exeter, Burghley House, Piranesi

Since in the mid to late 18thcentury the majority of visitors to Pompeii were aristocratic travelers, much of the initial influence on the arts came through in two ways.  The first was in collecting, or in other words the taking of ancient artifacts to add to their own private art collections.  The second was in their widespread use of Neoclassical design when they returned home. 

Perhaps no one adapted Pompeii for 18thcentury styles as the Scottish architect Robert Adam (1728-1792). The private homes and villas that were unearthed in Pompeii were large and the interior wall paintings full of bold colors.  Adam’s clientele wanted adaptions of Pompeian art in their own homes.
Part of the glass drawing room, Northumberland House, London
Designed from 1770; made 1773-1775

Adam designed interiors for contemporary aristocratic taste, which were influenced by the opulence of the villas in Pompeii, such as, rich colors, inlaid marble flooring reminiscent of mosaics and reproductions of antique sculpture.  Adam was one of the most highly sought after architects and designers, and through his designs the late 18th century taste for Pompeii spread.  Other artists followed in Adam’s footsteps. 

It is quite interesting that as a direct result of the excavations at Pompeii early Roman Empirical interior design tastes were now dictating the preference of the late 18th century.

Louis-Gustave Taraval, Section of a Neoclassical Salon, 1785

The other way images of Pompeii spread was through illustrated books, Jerome Richard wrote a complete guide to the works, reissued in the 1780’s called Voyage Pittoresque a Naples et en Sicile.  Pompeii was also visited by French artists studying at the Royal Academy in Paris who were awarded the Prix-de-Rome.  While they were studying in Rome, several of those artists visited Pompeii and drew what they saw.  Those who illustrated this volume included the well known 18th century French artist Fragonard.  They filled the pages with details examples of all the work that was unearthed so far.

Judith Harris writes in her book “Pompeii Awakened” that after the reissued book came out:

“The very concept of what was meant by classical art and architecture had to be reformulated.”1

Meaning, there were several surprising elements that the 18th Century found out about Roman art and society through the resurfacing of objects.  Up until this time much of what was known of the Classical Era came through writing or ruins.  The Empire of Ancient Rome had been romanticized and the reality of the Romans didn’t match the idealized expectations of the public.

Perhaps there is no better example than the large amount of erotic art found in Pompeii which both shocked and fascinated the population.  In the 1750’s King Charles briefly enacted a ban on the excavations after being offended by the sight of an infamous statue of Pan. This art was stored in a locked room in the museum at Naples which could only be accessed by special permission.  Some felt it was a sign that the Pompeians had caused their own destruction due to sin.  However others began to seek out the erotic art for their own private collections.

Lovatelli Venus, Villa of Diomeded, Excavated 1771-74
Painted Marble, 2nd Century BC, Getty Images

Another example of rethinking what was meant by classical art is that all of the pristine white marble sculptures one associated with the Romans had in fact been brightly painted.  This can be seen in the example of the Lovatelli Venus.  Her hair and robes had been painted using encaustic, a wax based paint which would adhere to the marble.  In most cases painted statues would appear white after being buried or exposed to the elements, but in the case of Pompeii the paint was better preserved on the sculpture found there.

Parthenopaen Republic and Bourbon Exile

The French Revolution worried the court at Naples as the King was related to the French Bourbons and his wife, Queen Maria Carolina was the sister of Marie Antoinette.  On Christmas Eve in 1798 King Ferdinand fled to Sicily as the French army marched on Italy.  For several months in 1799 the French Army under the reign of the Parthenopaen Republic ruled Naples.  Ferdinand fled again in 1805 with the invasion of Napoleon’s army.  During most of that time the excavations were put on hold. 

Excavations under the French decade of Napoleonic rule (1805-15)

The next era was known as the French decade, Naples was first ruled by Joseph Bonaparte and then by the Murat’s, Napoleon’s brother-in-law, Joachim and his wife Caroline.  The Murat’s had a strong interest in the classics and under their rule the digs not only resumed but flourished.  They passed a law in 1807 banning the exporting of antiques.  The two major excavations during this time were the House of Pansa in 1810 and the Basilica from 1813-17, the director at this time was Pietro La Vega, who succeeded his brother Francesco, Alcubierre’s assistant for 15 years.

Napoleon on his Imperial Throne, Ingres, 1806

The well-known French painter Ingres was a student at the French Academy where he received the Prix-de-Rome and spent several years living in Italy. He came to the attention of Napoleon as his favorite portraitist.

Finding of Telephus, Basilica of Herculaneum, Excavated in 1760's

Ingres was obviously influenced by a  fresco with Telephus found in the Basilica of Herculaneum unearthed in the 1760’s since he copied the pose again in this portrait from 1856.  Ingres continued to paint in the Neoclassical style throughout his career.  

Madame Paul-Sigisbert Moitessier, Ingres, 1856

Excavations under the restoration Bourbon King Ferdinand I (1816-25)

When King Ferdinand returned to Naples in 1816, he now ruled as the King of the Two Sicilies. Naples was a different place after the French decade and the excavation sites were drawing a more varied crowd.  The 1820’s was another busy period in the archeological digs unearthing the Temple of Apollo, the Temple of the Fortuna Augusta and the richly decorated House of the Tragic Poet.  In particular, the latter contained paintings and mosaics with a high level of detail and emotion.

Sacrifice of Iphigenia, House of the Tragic Poet, Excavated in 1824

Excavations under 19th Century Bourbon Kings (1825-1861)

From the death of King Ferdinand in 1825 to the Italian Unification in 1861, the Bourbons (Francis I (1825-1830), Ferdinand II (1830-1859) and Francis II (1859-1861) continuously ruled Naples. Several buildings were excavated during that time, but perhaps the most significant was the largest residence found in Pompeii, The House of the Faun, excavated in 1830.  The scale and grandeur of the mosaics found there were unsurpassed.  Richly detailed scenes that were created in hundreds of thousands of tiny chips of stone lined the floors in many rooms.  

The Battle of Alexander the Great and Darius was the most impressive mosaic in a vast villa filled with them, it measured 8’9” x 16’7” (2.7 x 5.1 m) and is thought to be a copy of an original Greek painting from 310BCE. 

Battle of Issus (Alexander the Great and Darius of Persia), Floor mosaic from House of the Faun, Pompeii

19th Century Romantic Art Influenced by Pompeii

Artistically, the early 19th century saw a move towards Romanticism.  The Romantic Movement focused on sweeping emotion, a sense of theatricality, the idea of the sublime and in depicting grand historical narratives.  In other words, the subject of Pompeii was a perfect match for Romantic art. 

In this time the artistic influence shifted away from 18th century design tastes and was more focused on the tragedy of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius.

 The Last Day of Pompeii was a popular Romantic theme.  The version by Bryullov inspired one of the most popular novels at the time, The Last Days of Pompeii, by Edward Bulwer-Lytton which was published in 1834.  His novel imagined numerous fictional characters and their lives in Pompeii before they met their tragic end. 

The Last Day of Pompeii, Karl Bryullov, 1830-33

The Bulwer-Lytton novel then inspired new romanticized art based on the characters of the book such as Randolph Rogers’ Nydia.  Nydia was the heroine of the story who was able to rescue her friends when the smoke and ash of the volcano darkened the sky so much that others couldn’t see.  Since she was used to navigating the streets without sight, she was able to lead them away from the town to safety.  The Rogers’ sculpture was so popular that his sculpting studio produced over 70 copies in marble.

Nydia, Randolph Rogers, 1859, 55 inches tall, marble

Outdoor painted sketches of Pompeian ruins

The actual ruins in Pompeii were also seen as romantic and inspired the artists that visited  in the mid-19thcentury to create landscape paintings.  Landscape paintings done on location were considered in the early 19th century to be unfinished works to be used as backdrops.  However landscape paintings were becoming popular in the Romantic age, many were nostalgic views of country life created as a response to the new industrial age.  The landscapes that Pompeii inspired were also nostalgic and sought to memorialize a once great empire.

Christen Købke, The Forum, Pompeii with Vesuvius in the Distance, mid-19th century

Excavations after Italian unification

A momentous event happened in 1861, Italy was unified for the first time under the rule of King Victor Emmanuel II.  The Bourbons in Naples and other monarchs stepped down from power.

In 1863 a new Director of the Pompeii Excavations was chosen, Giuseppe Fiorelli, who introduced several modern archeological methods.  One of his most important contributions was the creation of life casts in 1863, which were done from the cavities left in the hardened volcanic matter after the victims had long since decomposed.  Plaster was injected into these cavities and the result proved to be shockingly realistic, giving archeologists new ideas of clothing, artifacts and emotional state.  

Life casts of the Pompeii victims

The new ideas of humanism and individuality of the victims invoked sympathies, and influenced a new emotional artistic style.  In particular the painter Lawrence Alma-Tadema incorporated a level of realistic detail in his work which combined elements from both Neoclassicism and Romanticism.  Though his scenes are imagined, he painstakingly recreated real objects and interiors in his paintings and focused on more intimate scenes of daily life.

Preparations for the festivities (The floral wreath) oil on canvas 54 x 69.2 cm signed c.: L. ALMA. TADEMA 1866

As of today it is estimated that only two thirds of Pompeii have been uncovered, as the final third is excavated in the years to come it will be interesting to see how the Roman Empire continues to influence society through the unearthing of this vast archeological site.

1- Harris, Judith. Pompeii Awakened: A Story of Rediscovery. London: I.B. Tauris, 2007.

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