Naples:life,death &
                Miracle contact: Jeff Matthews

 entry 2004

 archaeology 4

Amedeo Maiuri (1886-1963)

Maiuri on the digs           
at Herculaneum           

Commenting on how the inhabitants of ancient Pompeii put their cemeteries along the road for everyone to see, the great Italian archaeologist, Amedeo Maiuri, superintendent of the sites at Pompeii and Herculaneum for many years, said, “They were not melancholy. They wanted to be seen and remembered—after death. […]The important thing now is not to discover new objects. We have more than we know what to do with. What we must do now is…learn the daily life of the ordinary people.” (note 1)

That interest in the mental states and personal lives of the ancients is what distinguished Maiuri as an archaeologist. His enthusiasm for the personal details is the reason you can today stand in the streets of excavated Herculaneum and have the feeling that maybe the whole town has just stepped out for a moment and will be right back. Indeed, that kind of intimate approach to antiquity was no doubt responsible for the fact that I was approached by a guide at Pompeii one time who asked me in his best, furtive, “dirty postcards” voice if I wanted to see something “really special.” Of course! He showed me the now famous mural of a happy happy (sic) Pompeian man smiling as he weighed his own oversize genitalia on a scale. At the time (the 1970s), the mural was covered by a medicine cabinet affair on the wall, such that you had to unlock it to show it off. The guide refused to let my wife look at it. She was furious and would have called up Maiuri, himself, if he had still been alive.

Maiuri was born in Verla, near Frosinone, about half-way between Naples and Rome. He earned a degree in archaeology at the University of Naples and continued his studies at universities in Rome and Athens. He began his career in 1911 when he was appointed to an Italian archaeological mission to Crete. In 1914, he headed an Italian archaeological team in the Aegean sea. He led this expedition for ten years, doing important work on the island of Rhodes, where he also opened a new museum. In 1924 he became director of the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, the chief of excavations in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and superintendent of antiquities for the Campania region. Besides his well-known work in Pompeii and Herculaneum, he also worked on the Greek site at Paestum, rediscovered the fabled cave of the Sibyl of Cuma, and excavated the Villa Jovis on Capri. Indeed, on Capri, before Maiuri,

…certain vaulted ruins were believed to be all that remained of the splendid palace which once crowned the height, and that they were all that survived after the Corsair raids in the Middle Ages. However… Maiuri became convinced that such was not the case. Excavation fully justified his doubts, for it was discovered that what had long passed for the foundation of the palace was in reality its top floor and that…[there exist]…the remains of three lower floors built around four massive cisterns which formed the core of the palace structure… (2)

Additionally, Maiuri taught Latin and Greek at the University of Naples and was the author of some 300 publications. He retired in 1961.

As opposed to the modern sweat-shirt and blue-jeans diggers of newer archaeology, Maiuri was always impeccably dressed, even when bobbing in a row-boat in the waters off of Baia, above the sunken ruins of Portus Julius, home port of the western Imperial Fleet of Rome, even as he asked divers to go down again and check this and that street again because the bakery should be right up here around the corner! (3)

During WW2, he did his best to protect his treasures in the museum from all-comers, hiding some from Nazi art thieves and vandals and sandbagging others to shelter them from Allied bombs.  Fortunately, bombs never hit the museum, though Maiuri harbored a grudge against US planes for bombing Pompeii itself when they thought Germans were using the ancient town as a munitions depot. (Apparently, they were not.)

Maiuri said that he didn’t want to be “just an archaeologist.” His Roman Painting (English edition, New York, pub. Skira, 1953) attests to that. He emphasized his view that Roman art was not just a debased copy of Greek art, something that many scholars had held for centuries. Maiuri showed that the Campanian muralists of Herculaneum and Pompeii were enchanted by nature, that they had a flair for caricature, that they were original, direct, racy, emotional, and even funny (certainly, that guy with the scale!). Besides Roman Painting, a selected bibliography includes:

  • The Phlegraean fields from Virgil's tomb to the Grotto of the Cumaean Sibyl. Roma. Libreria dello stato, 1947.
  • Pompeii.  Istituto Geografico. De Agostini, 1959.
  • Capri, its History and its Monuments. Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1956.
  • The Phlegraean Fields. Istituto Poligrafico dello Stato, 1969.
  • La Villa dei Misteri. Rome. Istituto dello Stato, 1931.
  • Herculaneum. La Libreria dello Stato, Rome, Italy, 1945.
  • Passeggiate campane  [Campanian Walks]. Milano, Rusconi, 1990.
  • Sulla sponda del Lucrino [On the Shores of Lake Lucrino]. Naples, Arte tipografica, 1984.
  • Studi e ricerche sull'anfiteatro Flavio puteolano[Studies and research on the Flavian amphitheater of Pozzuoli. Naples, ed. Gaetano Macchiaroli, 1955.
  • Guida dei monumenti e del Museo Archeologico di Rodi [Guide to the monuments and Archaeological Museum of Rhodes] Rhodes, Print-shop of the Corps of Occupation, 1918.
I have read Passeggiate campane. It is an intensely personal book. There is no doubt that Maiuri felt at home walking along ancient streets amidst the ruins, perhaps as home as he felt in Latin, a language that provided him with a wealth of proverbs that he was fond of quoting. He was, they say, one of the last of a breed, a combination of gentleman classicist and archaeologist.


1. In “Pompeii Diggings Yield Necropolis” by Herbert L. Matthews in the New York Times, May 29, 1954.  (back to place in text)
2. Fitzpatrick, Mary C. “Tiberius’ Villa Jovis on the Isle of Capri” in The Classical Journal, vol. 45 n. 2, Nov. 1949,  (pp. 66-70).  (back to place in text)
3. Episode cited in “Lo stregone di Pompei” [The Wizard of Pompeii] by Gianni Roghi in L’Europeo. N. 15,  April 14, 1963.  (back to place in text)

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