A fresh perspective on Pompeii and Herculaneum
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?
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).
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.’
‘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?’