A fresh perspective on Pompeii and Herculaneum

Modern art installation opposite Roman wall paintings in corridor in Pompeii
What can modern fine-art practice teach us about Roman wall painting? Although the Roman painting in the House of Cryptoporticus in Pompeii presents a veneer of regularity, in reality it is highly irregular – a facet that Catrin Huber brings out in her installation. (Photo: Amedeo Benestante with thanks to the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attivita’ Culturali e del Turismo – Parco Archeologico di Pompei)

In the wake of the highly successful Expanded Interiors exhibition at Pompeii and Herculaneum, Catrin Huber and Ian Haynes reflect on what contemporary fine-art practice can reveal about Roman decoration.

For many visitors, a trip to Pompeii and Herculaneum is all about the art. Countless ancient cities were graced with public buildings so spectacular – and so useful to successive generations – that they still captivate tourists today. But the Vesuvian cities are different. While Pompeii’s amphitheatre and Herculaneum’s suburban baths delight visitors, it is often the glimpses of everyday life in private houses that linger longest in the memory. Elsewhere, when such structures survive to any measure, the passing centuries have often stripped them back to their bare stone walling, but in Pompeii and Herculaneum we can experience home life in full colour. Various styles of wall paintings, ranging from imitation marble blocks to intricate architectural fantasies, still retain their power to impress. It is irresistible to muse on the personalities who commissioned this decoration and the financial means at their disposal. But is this art any good?

Contemporary art installation in room with Roman wall paintings in House of the Beautiful Courtyard, Pompeii
We experience the warm colour scheme in the House of the Beautiful Courtyard, Herculaneum, only after it had been subjected to the intense heat of the Vesuvian eruption. One missing element in this large room is the objects that originally stood in such spaces, something that Catrin is referring to in her installation. (Photo: Amedeo Benestante with thanks to the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attivita’ Culturali e del Turismo – Parco Archeologico di Ercolano)

Over the years, the wall paintings have received mixed reviews from a technical point of view. One accusation that has frequently been levelled at the painters is that they simply did not understand perspective, meaning the journey from a 3D object to a flat surface was not always a happy one. When Catrin Huber, Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle University, first visited the Vesuvian cities in 2008, she was left with a more positive view of the painters’ talents. ‘I was an Abbey Fellow at the British School of Rome for three months,’ Catrin remembers, ‘and that was the first time I saw the Roman works on site. I was absolutely fascinated and really struck by how fresh, topical, and relevant they seem for contemporary art practice. So I started thinking about how I could make work as a response, using the principles of the wall paintings. I created work for a number of exhibitions, but felt that to more deeply understand them it would be necessary to look at specific works in specific houses.’ That opportunity came in 2018, when Catrin’s Expanded Interiors exhibition installed her art in the House of the Cryptoporticus at Pompeii and the House of the Beautiful Courtyard at Herculaneum (see CWA 91).

Two archaeologists scan Roman room
Detailed 3D laser scans of both buildings and artefacts were carried out as part of the project. Here, the interior of the House of the Cryptoporticus is being recorded. (Photo: courtesy of Parco Archeologico di Pompei and Expanded Interiors)

From the beginning, Catrin felt the exhibition should have an archaeological component, as Ian Haynes, Professor of Archaeology at Newcastle University and project co-investigator, explains. ‘Catrin reached out to us while she was still conceptualising the project. One of the themes of the Vesuvian cities is that people want to experience in an immediate way a moment in Roman time, so the question of what stood in these spaces has intrigued people for a long time. We revisited the extensive body of scholarship examining this because, obviously, artefacts play vital roles in defining how interiors are experienced. But we have to remember that transformations of buildings happened even before the final catastrophe. So, for instance, the paintings in the House of the Cryptoporticus would not have been seen in the same way after the earthquake that struck Pompeii years before the eruption. Afterwards, the cryptoporticus was partially truncated, and it was used as a storeroom. We studied quite intensely what objects had come up from these sites, but the documentation is not always complete, so precision is a problem.’

Bright red and brilliant colours in contemporary art installation in Roman house
It is easy for modern visitors to take the brilliant colours that feature in the wall paintings and the changes between rooms for granted. Catrin’s installations help provide a sense of the power these decorations would have originally had. (Photo: Amedeo Benestante with thanks to the Ministero dei Beni e delle Attivita’ Culturali e del Turismo – Parco Archeologico di Pompei)

‘The archaeological component also involved study and recording of the built space and interiors. Essential to the ongoing dialogue were our colleagues Thea Ravasi and Alex Turner, experts in Roman architecture and scanning respectively. We are now working with them, and with Emma Wilson, a forensic fire investigator, on plans to look further at what happens when heat meets art. There is a longstanding issue that we experience these paintings after they have been exposed to the brutality of Vesuvian heat. What does that do to the colour schemes? How much can we learn, not just about that common phrase “the last days of Pompeii”, but the last seconds of Herculaneum?’

This is an extract from an article featured in issue 94 of Current World ArchaeologyClick here for more information about subscribing to the magazine.

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