Pompeii, Origins through Destruction



  • On 24 August 79 CE the eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed the southern Bay of Naples, burying the towns of Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabia together with the farms, sanctuaries, and luxury villas of the countryside. Their systematic excavation began in 1748. A community of scholars and lay people have since investigated the cities and their architecture for over 270 years. Their ranks are varied, starting with art and architectural historians, classicists, classical archaeologists, humanists, and amateurs, and continuing with scientists specialized in disciplines as varied as chemistry, biology, and forensics to name a few. The study of Pompeii and the ancient cities on the Bay of Naples is almost its own discipline that has helped to germinate art history and archaeology and spark movements such as Neoclassicism. The result is a burgeoning bibliography that exceeds 20,000 entries, with dozens of books and articles appearing each year. Given the rich architectural remains of the city, many, if not most, of these publications relate to architecture. Yet much remains unknown and considerable research on the architecture of Pompeii awaits current and future scholars. This article constitutes a basic starting point to study the architecture of Pompeii. It focuses on primary sources and monographs, and extends beyond single architectural studies because the study of Pompeian architecture requires attention to external factors governing social behavior. Domestic rituals, religious practices, technological advances, social routines, social hierarchy as well as military, entertainment, economic, environmental, and political factors all came together to shape the city. Modern research in Pompeii began with art historical and epigraphic approaches producing catalogues and publications describing wall painting, inscriptions, statuary, and the objects of the decorative arts. Expansive topographical surveys describing the city’s architecture started to appear in the 19th century and gave rise to a fascination with Pompeii throughout Europe. The expansion of the excavations in this period prompted then superintendent Giuseppe Fiorelli to organize the city into regions, insulae (city blocks), and house numbers, giving buildings the addresses they have today (e.g. VI.12.2-7 for the House of the Faun). Excavations seeking to understand the long-term history of Pompeii began in the 20th century, first, under efforts by Superintendent Amedeo Maiuri and, later, by various international teams and individual scholars, leading to the comprehensive approaches that study the city today. These efforts have produced a consensus that divides the 700+ years of Pompeian history into three mains phases: Pre-Samnite (under Etruscan, Greek, and Punic influence), Samnite, and finally Roman Pompeii, which subdivides further into the Colonial, Imperial, and Post-earthquake (after 62 CE) periods. Each phase is rich and stimulating in its own right, but the Roman period is the one that produced much of the architecture visible today; consequently, it has received the most attention due to the state of preservation.

  • Publication Date

  • February 26, 2020
  • Keywords

  • Pompeii
  • Digital Object Identifier (doi)