“…And now high and far
into the dawning skies broke the fragrant fire…”
As far as I know, no one has ever written a book or made any movies about the last days of Herculaneum.* The line cited above is from Edward George Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 novel, The Last Days of Pompeii. It remains one of the most widely read books ever, and there have been at least three films based on it. Bulwer-Lytton pretty much left neighboring Herculaneum alone, which is just as well, since keen-eared readers will note that the cited line is not much better than the author’s most famous line, the immortally bad, “It was a dark and stormy night.” Yet, the remains of some 300 citizens of Herculaneum uncovered during the excavations of the city attest to the same dramatic reality of destruction in 79 a.d. by the same explosive eruption of Mt. Vesuvius that doomed Pompeii.
Indeed, Herculaneum remains underknown and undervisited — which are excellent reasons to take a look at it. The town is also underexcavated, but there are projects underway to correct that situation, in so far as it is possible to carry out archaeological digs in the most densely populated area of Europe, precisely the area along the southern slope of the Volcano, where modern Ercolano sits — exactly on top of old Herculaneum.
The current plans are the
result of a collaboration between the Packard Humanities
Institute of Los Altos California, founded in 1987 “to
create tools for basic research in the Humanities and to
foster public interest in the history, literature, and
music of the past” and the British School of Rome, a
“…centre for research on the archaeology, history, and
culture of Italy, and for contemporary art and
architecture.” The collaboration has existed since
2001 with the aim, in part, “… to arrest the decay that
afflicts all parts of this site. The propping of
collapsing structures with scaffolding, the
consolidation of crumbling plaster surfaces and
disintegrating mosaics …represent the vital first step
in ensuring that the delicate ancient remains
survive…[and]… to develop a conservation strategy to
safeguard the long-term survival of the site and enhance
its value to all its users.”
Herculaneum, they say, was founded by Hercules, who was one busy little camper in these parts as he returned from Spain after wrangling the Oxen of Geryon; numerous other bits and pieces along the Campanian coast are connected to him: the town of Torre del Greco, the little island of Rovigliano, etc. etc. Greek historian, Strabo, tells us that the city was originally Oscan, then Etruscan, and then Samnite before being gobbled up by the Romans. In any case, by the time of Augustus, it was a thriving little walled city on a sheer cliff overlooking the sea. Like other places in the vicinity, Herculaneum was badly damaged in a great earthquake of 62 A.D. and was presumably getting back on its feet when real disaster struck a few years later.
The walls of the city enclosed an area of about 20 hectars (about 50 acres). The city was home to about 4,000 persons. Less than one-quarter of the original city has been excavated; the rest lies beneath the modern, densely populated town of Ercolano, and is likely to remain so buried forever. Excavations were begun in the 1730s as part of the general rediscovery of the classical history of the area, which included Pompeii, Oplontis and, farther afield, Paestum. Important work was done in the 20th century by the great Neapolitan archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri, the person who finally found the fabled cave of the Sibyl of Cuma. (Hmmm-- “…finally found the fabled cave…” / “…high and far into the dawning skies…” OK, it’s a toss-up.)
Current work takes advantage
of the fact that the city was buried and, thus, preserved
under 50 feet of the original pyroclastic material that
covered the town and solidified. As it is scraped away,
much more detail is available to us than in Pompeii about,
say, the upper floors of the original structures and the
building techniques. The original docks of the city with
their vaulted warehouses and boat storage facilities on
the original beach at the base of the cliff may now be
seen, for example. They now sit some 400 yards in from the
sea, the result of new land added by the eruption as well
as by natural changes in sea level. The few blocks of the
excavated city in from the cliff contain other items of
extreme interest: the house of the Corinthian atrium, the
Taberna of Priapus, the House of the Deers, etc. etc. much
of which is in a better state of preservation than found
elsewhere in classical archaeology. The streets and a few
of the buildings just look empty, but not particularly
devastated — as if those living there had just stepped out
for a while. Indeed, Shelley’s lines about Pompeii...
"I stood within the City disinterred;
And heard the autumnal leaves like light footfalls
Of spirits passing through the streets...
...have an intimacy about them that one is more likely to sense in Herculaneum.
note (Feb. 2014): Oops! It turns out that there is at least one film. Friend Jeff Miller has reminded me of a 1962 Italian/French production entitled Anno 79: La Distruzione di Ercolano. It's from 1962, during the golden age of (1) Spaghetti Westerns and (2) Italian-made "Sword & Sandal" epics about ancient Rome, generally featuring overly-ripped musclemen throwing chariots around. The film was directed by one of the prominent makers of such epics, Gianfranco Parolini, whose other genre films include Samson, The Fury of Hercules and The Ten Gladiators. up^
note (Oct. 2015): There is now an excellent virtual museum in Ercolano near the archaeological site. You can see, live, breathe and feel all this without getting burnt to a crisp. See link, below: Virtual Archaeological Museum.See also: Tomb Raiders of Naples , The Papyri in the Villa , and Virtual Archaeological Museum
also see: "Putting on a new Face" by Jarret A. Lobell, Archaeology Magazine Nov./Dec-2017.
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added 26 Oct 2019 Conserving the paintings in Herculaneum
Pompeii gets most of the ink about new discoveries and new this and new that in excavation and restoration. That's fine, but its oft overlooked twin victim of Vesuvius in 79 AD, Herculaneum, has cause to rejoice. The House of the Bicentenary (image left) has reopened!
The House of the Bicentenary is called that because it was re-discovered in 1938, 200 years after official excavations began at the site under the Bourbon monarchy. Italy's entry into WWII didn't leave too much time for art history and conservation. The post-war boom overlooked a lot of that, as well. Then in 1983, the 600-square-meter (6,400-square-foot) building was closed to the public. It was falling apart.
It was one of the city’s finest private houses, the home of Gaius Petronius Stephanus and his wife Calantonia Themis, with well-preserved mosaic floors and frescoes depicting mythological scenes and architectural and animal motifs. These badly faded works of art may now be restored thanks to a "revolutionary new technique." The old technique was well meaning but misguided. The faded paintings and mosaics were covered with wax. Does that work? Well, it preserves, leaving you with a badly faded painting that you can never restore because stripping away the wax strips away so much of the original color that you have done more harm than good
The solution was a "non-organic rigid gel solution" that actually removes the wax without flaking away the paint underneath, leaving a stable paint layer for art restorers to apply vivid colors to and send these works of art, a significant part of the area's cultural heritage, back in time by some 2,000 years! If you go to the Bicentenary House, you can watch eager art restorers going nuts!
photos Andreas Solaro