Friday, 22 November 2013

"Strange and half-disagreeable"

Goethe in the Roman Campagna, J. Tischbein
from wikipedia
I want to start my hypothetical Guest Book with a very popular visitor: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Goethe visited Pompeii and Herculaneum quite at an early stage of the excavations, in March 1787. 
It is not easy to tell if he enjoyed the experience. If we look at the words Goethe used (and, being a poet, he probably picked them carefully and precisely) to describe Pompeii, we’ll find many terms with quite explicit negative connotations: «narrow», «cramped», «small». In the end, he and his companions received a “strange and half-disagreeable impression of this mummified town”. 

What disturbed Goethe so deeply? We cannot possibly say. Maybe just the mismatch between the «actual» Pompeii and the image of it that he had in his mind. In other words, Pompeii was not “Classical” or, even better, “Neoclassical” enough compared to Goethe expectations. It is also true that, as Leppmann remembers, when Goethe visited Pompeii many of the most iconic buildings, especially the big villas and temples, where still to be uncovered. The only major temple visible was, probably, the temple of Isis. I bet that its asymmetry and the slightly chaotic ensemble of architectonic features are among the things that quite bothered Goethe.

However, after a couple of years, Goethe writes in his journals that “he really does not know of anything more interesting” of Pompeii. What is particularly remarkable (and maybe slightly amusing) is that, as Fitzon says, the second entry in Goethe’s Journal is not connected to any new visit to Pompeii. It is more Goethe editing (not just aesthetically but also conceptually) his journal for the large audience. 

Goethe and his friends,
F. Bury
Did he see, after his visit, something new that made him reconsider his position? Or did he just feel that it was his duty as a member of the cultural intelighenzia to show enthusiasm for such an archaeological treasure, even though he didn’t actually enjoy the visit. In other words, was Goethe experiencing the same sort of schizophrenic reaction that is still quite common among contemporary tourists: a mix of disappointment, wonder and guilt?
Again, we do not know. 

According to his journal, the visit to the museum of Portici might have changed quite considerably his perception of the whole experience. After the visit to Portici, Goethe says he could finally populate, at least in his imagination, the empty houses and temples with objects. And I believe that putting eventually together buildings and artefacts could actually be an enormous added value. Much before his contemporaries, Goethe seems to be very impressed by everyday items such as lamps and candelabra. If I compare his words with the answers to the questionnaires my respondents gave me about the British Museum exhibition, it seems that Goethe understood much earlier than others how much Pompeii was going to change the way the public thinks of the Past, shifting the interest from the exceptional piece of art to the everyday lives of our ancestors.

Goethe enthusiasm for Pompeii was refreshed, many years later, by his encounter with the young painter Wilhelm Zahn. His account of the first meeting with Goethe is quite entertaining. But that’s another story...

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

A Pompeian Guestbook

One of the reasons I have chosen Pompeii as a case study is because of its popularity. In the past 250 years, many people have visited the excavations (and the Museum) and more than someone has decided to leave a record of their impressions. So, I have access to an interesting, heterogeneous and multimedia corpus of interpretations of Pompeii and its artefacts, from 1748 to present day.
I want to compare how the reception of Pompeii has been changing through time and try to point out what are the variables that influenced these changes.
I have decided to start with the interpretations of Pompeii that come from writers, intellectuals and historical personalities. I am aware that the experience of these particular witnesses is likely to have been very different from the regular visitor's one. Not only they were probably treated as honorable guests, but they also had a cultural background that cannot be representative of their average contemporaries.

On the other hand, the travel notes of persons like Goethe or Dickens, are certainly easier to find and access than the private journals of non-famous people. I would also say that they tend to be quite well written. What I mean is that writers and artists have the habit of describing things in detail and to record their feelings quite precisely. Furthermore, these people seldom were really writing for their private journals. They knew they were actually targeting a large public, and they were aware that their view of Pompeii would have shaped the expectations (and even the opinions) of the their connationals.

I am starting from the assumption that popular artists were kind of opinion leaders, and that they were certainly influenced by their own background culture but, at the same time, they were actively influencing it.
The list of members of the intelligentsia who went to Pompeii and wrote (or painted or drew) about it is very long: Madame de Staƫl, Mozart, Stendhal, Keats, Byron, Gautier and many others

Is this process still ongoing? Who are today the people we (implicitly) entrust to shape our interpretations of Ancient Cultural Heritage?

Monday, 14 October 2013

The look in their eyes

Bronze statues from the Villa of the Papyri
Archaeological Museum of Naples
According to my personal taste, one of the most beautiful artefacts on display at the British Museum's exhibition was the bronze statue of the dancer from the Villa of the Papyri. The statue is part of a group, but even on its own is a remarkable piece.
When I was looking at it, I overheard the second conversation I want to share here. One of the two persons involved commented, pointing at the dancer, how much she liked “the new kind of statues” because, unlike “the old ones”, they had their eyes painted.
I found this dialogue (that I'm considering representative of a common opinion that I've heard several times in different circumstances) quite relevant from the reception point of view for two reasons:
1) It looks like the idea that ancient statues were monochrome and with blank eyes is still very common. It doesn’t matter how many books, tv documentaries and journals have tried to show otherwise in the last years. This misconception is strong and still make us implicitly reject any other image of the Past. I can see that, compared to the majority of the ancient statues (especially marble ones), having human-like eyes makes the Group of the Dancers (and other statues from the Villa of the Papyri) fascinating for their being an exception. But they are an archaeological exception (few statues with eyes can be seen today), not an historical exception (few statues with eyes could be seen in the past).

As a member of the public myself, I remember to have thought, the first time I saw the statues in the museum of Naples, that I loved the contrast between the almost-black colour of the statue and the whiteness of the eyes. I found it magnetic. So much so that I was (irrationally) a bit disappointed in discovering that, as it happens quite often, the bronze statues used to be painted. In the eyes of my XXI century aesthetic sensibility, a “whole black” would have been much more elegant, wouldn’t it?

The statue of the dancer displayed
at the British Museum exhibition
Obviously I’m not judging the competence of the persons in the museum. I think that one of the goals of a museum is to attract people that are not expert in the fields. The many they menage to reach, the more successful is an exhibition, in my opinion. What I want to remark is how an inaccurate image of the past can be much stronger and more permanent than a non-visual accurate information

2) The dialogue implied that there is a linear progression is art that goes from less good to better but also from less realistic to more realistic (the statues with the eyes that are better than the others as they are more "realistic" were assumed to be more recent than the one with blank eyes). So, in a way, not only a more recent piece of art is supposed to be intrinsically better that an older one, but it is also assumed that this progression towards perfection overlaps entirely with the pursue of realism. It sounds like ancient painters were just not too good at drawing; as if they were not able to paint something with the same idea of proportion, perspective or lighting that we consider “right”.

This idea of art, that has probably been slowly challenged by movements such as fauvism, impressionism and cubism, was still dominant at the time of the first excavation in Pompeii and Herculaneum. This is exactly why many frescoes that were judged “not artistically worthy” because distant from the common idea of what a painting should look like, have been destroyed without many regrets.
This is also the same feeling beyond the disappointment experienced by many of the artists and art lovers that visited Pompeii in the XVIII and XIX century. But will talk more about that later. 

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Things and Images of Things

Pompeian Fresco representing a give away of bread
I saw the British Museum exhibition Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum the first time last April, with a crowd of archeologists. I wanted to see it again and take my time to look at how things were exhibited and communicated. When I was there with my notebook, I couldn’t help paying attention to what people were saying looking at the artefacts.
As museum studies have largely proved, going to museum’s exhibitions is a social activity. And part of the pleasure is in discussing and commenting the items seen together.

I found two of the conversations I overheard particularly relevant, although in a different way.
The first one needs a little contextualisation first. The BM exhibited some of the objects next to their representations in frescoes. I have noticed that the audience liked this kind of display very much and it was explicitly brought up during my interviews. I can only agree that it was very effective, from a communicative point of view. 

Carbonised loaf of Bread. British Museum Website
The connection between the two items immediately made them both more interesting and, in a way, I think it made them both more “real”, as if they were baking up each other. My first reaction too was to research the similarities between the ancient thing and its depiction. And the carbonised loaf of bread, which is already one of the most well known and powerful Pompeian finds, looks indeed very alike the ones showed in the related fresco. There was another quite successful example with actual silverware and painted one. The comments, in both cases, were really favorable.

On the one hand, it supports my idea that showing connections between things enhances their informative value. On the other hand, I wonder if it is appropriate for an archaeological museum to disseminate the idea that ancient frescoes show exact and realistic (in the may we intend it today) representation of things and places. In other words, are frescoes and other pieces of art documentation of the past?

Fresco from the Villa of P. F. Sinistore, Boscoreale
Now exhibited in the Metropolitan Museum
I have seen in the archeological museum of Taranto the objects found in burials exhibited next to statues or paintings of the same age showing how those earrings, or pins or brooches were probably worn. I thought it was a very informative display, especially because many of the found objects were incomplete and not always easy to imagine in use. However, when I was studying 3D visualisation during my MA, I was warned against the temptation of considering artistic representations as a “proof” of the past. I do agree that a pictorial clue can be extremely useful but I also think that it can be a bit controversial, especially when we look at cultures that had a different idea of “naturalism” than we do. What should we think of the intricate and nearly impossible architectures represented in the Villa of Publio Fannio Sinistore? It is very unlikely that it is a “realistic” representation of the urban landscape of Campania. And what about ancient Egyptians walking and talking in pretty uncomfortable positions?  

Hence, I am not entirely sure a cultural institution like the British Museum should actually promote the idea of the one-to-one relationship between ancient artefact and their image in ancient art.

Not even if it works sooooo well for the public.

Friday, 11 October 2013

"We need a holiday, Terentius. Let's go to London"

Promotional Image for the British Museum exhibition
Being what people think and feel in front of Pompeian artefacts part of my research, the British Museum exhibition Life and Death in Herculaneum sounded like a wonderful opportunity to observe the audience's behavior and conduct some interviews without flying to Campania.

I got very excited about this exhibition and, apparently, so did London as the tickets were quickly sold out. 
The British Museum exhibition also allowed to compare different displays of the same artefact and their effectiveness. And, actually, the BM’s concept couldn’t be more different from the Museum of Naples’s one (where the majority of the items are usually exhibited).

Unlike the Museum of Naples, were the artefacts are displayed with little or no contextual information, as they were able to be self explanatory, the BM has built the exhibition around the idea of «house». Many of the items were arranged accordingly, using spatial relationships to give a basic level of contextualisation.

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum
British Museum, 2013. Getty Images
Before comparing some aspects of the two museum environments (which are indeed very different historically and structurally), I want to discuss what people told me about Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, starting with few quick notes about the selection of my sample.
The BM audience is international and multicultural. I have tried to interview people that, according to a quick (and obviously unreliable) assessment, came from outside UK, because I was interested in hearing different «voices» about Pompeian artefacts. However, the foreigners  I have tried to talk with often didn’t speak English at all. So, against my explicit commitment, almost the totality of my respondents are British or Americans. The people that were more willing to spend few minutes answering my questions were mostly the ones that have a bigger amount of spare time compared to the average population: retired and students.

My special thanks go to a couple of ladies of the University of Third Age: the only ones that, at the end of the questionnaire, were a bit disappointed by its brevity...

Thursday, 10 October 2013

An Introduction

Woman with wax tablets (so called "Saffo")
Archaeological Museum of Naples
Wikimedia Commons
I am a PhD student in Digital Humanities and Classics at King’s College London and this is a blog about my research. It is meant to be a digital notebook to fix ideas and share them with colleagues and other people interested in the same topics. 

I study 3D visualisation of archeological heritage, more specifically Pompeian buildings and artefacts. I am focusing on some methodological issues of 3D modelling such as the documentation of the research process and the representation of multiple hypotheses. 
I think that introducing 3D visualisations in the study of the Ancient World would change and enrich our knowledge of the Past, and  I’m trying to find a way to make it possible and easy.

Here I will discuss museum exhibitions, archaeological sites, my own interviews to the public, old and not-so-old accounts of visits to Pompeii and Herculaneum, the image of these places that has been disseminated by cultural products (literature, post cards, movies), touristic guides and official excavation records. 

I will do my best to put together again, logically and visually, things that have been separated many years ago but should be seen and understood together because they complete each other and give sense to each other.

I am interested in the cognitive and emotional relationship that people build with these ancient artefacts and how digital technologies can represent and enhance such a bond. This is a complicated way to say that I want to understand why and how people fall so deeply in love with Pompeii. 

I like to talk, and write, about the idea of «place» and its existence in geography, perception, memory and imagination. And I will probably try to convince you that the best way to engage the audience with the Past is through storytelling. My cunning plan is to actually tell you a lot of stories about Pompeii. You probably won’t believe them at the beginning, but I promise they will be true. Almost all of them.