Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae were buried in the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, but the catastrophe was recorded in classical literature and its memory remained alive. The disaster happened so quickly that many people were unable to escape; the towns were completely covered under several metres of volcanic ash and lava. In later times, casual discoveries sometimes revealed marble statues, and Domenico Fontana, for example, while building an aqueduct, decided to avoid destroying the remains of a nymphaeum. However, the sites remained covered until the beginning of the eighteenth century. Around 1711, Prince d'Elboeuf, an Austrian cavalry officer, did some excavations on his property on the sea-side near the small town of Portici. His workers discovered three
Roman statues of rare quality representing two young women and an elderly lady. D'Elboeuf had the statues restored and sent as a gift to his superior, Prince Eugène, who exhibited them in his palace in Vienna. Later the statues were acquired for the collections in Dresden and were known to Maria Amalia of Saxony. She was married to Charles III of the Bourbons, who ascended the throne of the Two Sicilies and arrived in Naples in 1738. Excavations were started immediately on the site where d'Elboeuf had found the statues, leading to the discovery of a theatre afterward identified as part of Herculaneum. Here, the first excavations came to an end in 1765, but Pompeii and Stabiae, which were discovered in 1748, started attracting more attention.
Responsibility for the excavations was given to a Spanish soldier, Rocco Giocchino de Alcubierre, who worked with some interruption until his death in 1780. Others were Francesco Rorro, Pietro Bardet and the Swiss architect Carlo Weber, who was replaced by Francesco La Vega in 1764. The excavations in Herculaneum caused many problems; the ground was extremely hard, and the site extended under the town of Resina, where the houses were in danger of collapse due to cavities underneath. Soon the emphasis was shifted to Pompeii, which was nearer to the surface and easier to excavate. A museum was built in Portici, where the uncovered objects could be displayed. This was directed by Camillo Paderni, who also assisted in supervising the excavations. On 24 July 1755, the king provided legislation to protect the important Greek and Roman heritage in the Naples area. This protection was justified by the fact that no care had been taken in the past, and therefore the most precious pieces had been taken out of the kingdom to enrich foreign collections. The proclamation focused mainly on objects found in excavations, and on guaranteeing the rights of the royal house and their collections. Unauthorized exportation was forbidden under penalty, but there was no mention about the conservation of buildings or sites.
Various excavated sites were recorded; the first plan of the theatre of Herculaneum was prepared by Alcubierre in 1739 showing the excavated winding corridors reflected on the completed plan of the theatre. By 1750 Rorro and Weber had written 404 reports on the excavated sites. The documentation prepared by Weber was carefully guarded, and a series of eight volumes, Le Antichita di Ercolano esposti, was published from 1755 to 1792 to illustrate the objects found from the excavations. This work was translated into several languages and was influential in the spread of neo-classicism. Goethe later wrote that no catastrophe had ever yielded so much pleasure to the rest of humanity as that which buried Pompeii and Herculaneum.
In Pompeii, the excavations had started from the amphitheatre, an obvious feature as its form was apparent on the ground. In Herculaneum, tunnels were dug, and often filled in afterwards; in Pompeii, some sites
could be discovered twice. At the beginning, the works were generally carried out in an ad hoc manner, and with the sole purpose of enriching the royal collections. Although plans and reports were prepared, the buildings could be destroyed; anything that could be removed was carried away, including pictures cut from the walls.23 In 1761, the ministry ordered the removal and destruction of 'those useless antique coloured renderings' found in the buildings. The best marbles, mosaics and bronzes were cleaned of their 'patina' and restored. Some broken bronze elements were melted down for a bust of the king and for the new gates of the Portici. Much of the rest was treated as spoils and subsequently lost. The works proceeded slowly, and the few workers included slaves from Algeria and Tunis. La Vega was the best qualified of those responsible for the excavations; when he took over from Alcubierre much more attention was given to the sites and to the conservation of architectural elements.
After 1765, La Vega started systematic documentation, and insisted on a more systematic approach in the excavations, concentrating on the display of whole areas rather than aiming at unearthing antique objects. The work then proceeded along a main road liberating the whole area in Pompeii. He proposed the preservation and protection of the frescoes of Casa del Chirurgo in situ, wanting to leave the space as found in order 'to satisfy the public', and because he considered the value of these paintings to consist mainly in the effect of the whole environment; this would be destroyed if the paintings were removed. In some cases, objects could even be brought back to a site from the museum. A portion of the Caserma dei Gladiatori was rebuilt, in order to give an idea of its original form, but also to provide a place for the guardians. La Vega also proposed to build a lodging-house for tourists to stay overnight. He suggested that this should be exactly like the antique houses, so as also to serve didactic purposes.
In the second half of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, the ancient sites of Sicily were included in the range of study tours, and were visited by numerous travellers. Consequently, the authorities became interested in building up a system of survey and reporting of ancient monuments, and started repairs and maintenance works on sites such as Agrigento, Selinunte, and Segesta. In 1778, Sicily had the first administration for the protection of antiquities; the country was divided in two areas trusted to the custodianship of recognized connoisseurs of antiquities, the western part with Principe di Torremuzza, Gabriele Lancillotto Castelli (1727-92), a numismatist influenced by Winckelmann, and the eastern part with Principe di Biscari, Ignazio Paterno Castello (1719-86), who inaugurated a museum of objects excavated in the area of Catania in 1758 (Boscarino, 1985; Tomaselli, 1985).
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