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The afterlife of Pompeii

28.05.2015. Naples & around

The history of the Vesuvian sites destroyed during the great eruption of AD 79 is not confined to the ancient past. The Roman towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Stabiae and other settlements in the Bay of Naples enjoyed almost continuous prosperity between the 3rd century BC and that fateful day when time stopped still and the sites were buried under a mixture of pumice, ash and lava.

The second, archaeological phase of the Vesuvian sites’ history began in the eighteenth century, when a growing interest in antiquarianism led to the launch of a number of excavation campaigns, often under the tutelage of leading noblemen or princely benefactors. Gradually the emergence of remarkable artefacts and artworks, and the romance stirred up by the legend of the last days of Pompeii, fed into the art, architecture and literature of the period. Pompeii, Herculaneum and the other towns at the foot of the volcano became not only a testing ground for the increasingly scientific discipline of archaeology, but a source of inspiration for artists from Ingres to Picasso.

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Paul Delaroche, Fanciulla nuda in un labrum pompeiano, 1843 - 1844 circa, Besançon, Musée des Beaux-Arts et d’Archèologie, photo Charles Choffet

It’s this second stage – the modern rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum – that is the focus of Pompei e l’Europa 1748-1943, a fascinating new exhibition which spreads across two venues, the Pompeii archaeological site and Naples’ Museo Archeologico. In Naples, over 250 items – a mix of ancient artefacts and works of art from the the 18th to the 20th centuries – chart the Pompeii fever that swept Europe from the time of the first systematic excavations in 1748 onwards.

In Pompeii itself, a striking temporary pyramid erected inside the Amphitheatre hosts a display of the famous calchi or casts, made by filling with plaster those hollow spaces in the volcanic debris where bodies had been trapped and later decomposed. Newly restored, these casts bear poignant witness to the human tragedy of the eruption. They are presented alongside a selection of archival photos that chart the progress of excavations from the nineteenth to the twentieth centuries.

Pompei e l’Europa 1748-1943

27 May – 2 November 2015

Naples, Museo Archeologico Nazionale (9am-7.30pm, closed Tue)

Scavi di Pompei (8.30am-7.30pm daily)

P. IVA IT: 02397010659