In the year A.D. 79, Mount Vesuvius erupted cataclysmically, killing almost all of the 20,000 citizens of Pompeii. The ash from this volcano blanketed the city, and caused all life to come to a standstill. Pliny the Younger described the city in this state as “buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts” (Pliny the Younger, Letter to Cornelius Tacitus). This description echoes the new quietness of the city, after all the “shrieks of women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men”, (Ibid), had subsided. The city could have been described as “frozen in time”, as the city was preserved completely in the moment. For example, excavators discovered a loaf of bread that was in the oven of a house. Fig. 1
Also, Horace Walpole said that the structures in the city had not been “crushed together” but were “standing upright in their proper situation” (Horace Walpole’s Letters 1740, cited in Haggerty, 2011, p.63-65). This preservation was crucial for people to enjoy and learn from the ruins of Pompeii, ergo, crucial for its popularity, (otherwise, there would be nothing remaining to become popular).
Fortunately, in 1748, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre rediscovered Pompeii, and started excavations that would lead to a huge increase in the popularity of Pompeii in 18th century, and eventually the 19th century as well. He excavated the Villa of Cicero, a house I will discuss again later in this essay. In terms of answering this complex question, I will be using both primary and secondary sources as well as in-depth case studies to formulate my response. I have decided to focus on interior design in this assignment, as I believe that this topic has lots of scope for original and valid arguments to be made about how and why Pompeii experienced increasing popularity. The stylings, paintings and household items seen in Pompeii inspired a huge increase in interior design, (mainly by the upper classes of the 18th century). However, this also became very popular in the 19th century, which I will discuss later in the assignment.
Reception and popularity of Pompeii in the 18th century
After Pompeii was rediscovered, groups of people called Grand Tourists flocked to Pompeii to learn about the ancient city. These people were usually upper class men and women, with lots of wealth and status in society. They were accompanied by tutors on a tour of historical places like Pompeii to enhance their education. The main objectives of going on a Grand Tour such as this were to experience life as a Pompeian, as well as being able to showcase their new education of ancient paintings and relics to other people back in the UK. Grand Tourists did this by taking original or reconstructed statues and artworks back to Britain, and often hosting parties to display these items and let everyone know how cultured and educated they were. Lady Charlotte Lindsey, a Grand Tourist, said, “Nothing can convey a more exact idea of the domestic life…ruins of Pompeii” (Lady Charlotte Lindsey, letter dated 1815). This quote shows how valuable the source of Pompeii is, and gives us an insight into why it became so popular, namely because it was impossible to learn about an ancient city quite like excavators and tourists could learn about Pompeii. This led to a surge of interest in Pompeii, as the walls of the city contained knowledge that no one even knew existed. Grand Tourists were eager to visit to show off and transmit their wealth, education and importance in 18th century Britain.
One important Grand Tourist to look at is Sir William Hamilton. Fig. 2
In this painting, it is clear to see how Hamilton appropriated the furniture/ interior design he saw in Pompeii to suit his own needs. In other words, the table with a gold griffin as a table leg would likely have been made out of wood in the houses that actually featured this in Pompeii. Therefore, Hamilton is making it more luxurious and appropriating it so he looks even wealthier than he already is. As a side note, Allen has included a depiction of Mount Vesuvius erupting in the background. This is shown again in a painting of Lady Elizabeth Holland Fig. 3.
This is very common in paintings of the Grand Tourists, as most of them wanted to share how experienced and cultured they were to other upper class people. Furthermore, the painting also makes use of colours that are very common in original Pompeian paintings. (Horace Walpole referred to these original discovered paintings by saying that they are “preferred to all the ancient paintings that have ever been discovered” (Horace Walpole’s Letters 1740, cited in Haggerty, 2011, p.63-65). This perfectly demonstrates how well received Pompeii and its artifacts were, since Walpole implies that anyone who is significant in society should own a Pompeian painting, as they are the height or sophistication and popularity.) Perhaps Allen included the red, gold and black colours in his painting as well as features common in the original paintings so others can instantly associate Hamilton with having the importance, education and wealth that allows one to travel to Pompeii. Also, these colours are very commonly used to decorate Pompeii influenced houses and halls, for example the Red Hall of Syon House. Fig. 5 This demonstrates how important interior design was in making Pompeii popular. However, I must critique this source and similar sources by saying that the paintings of the Grand Tourists were often greatly exaggerated in order to appear fancier to their audiences, so we cannot take the accuracy and exact features of the paintings as the complete truth, i.e. the reliability of these paintings must be questioned. Although, these paintings do show how the popularity of Pompeii in the 18th century inspired artworks and interior designs that inspired others to go to Pompeii and see what they were missing out on, so they do offer an insight into how and why Pompeii gained popularity.
One rather extreme example of how Pompeii influenced the interior design back in Britain is the case of Grand Tourist William Wendell. He enjoyed the statues he witnessed in Pompeii so much, he shipped nineteen cases of them back to Britain. By hosting dinner parties surrounded by these statues, (evidence of how cultured he was), others were greatly encouraged to go to Pompeii. Also, having such grand décor confirmed Wendell’s social standing by proving his wealth, culture and experience, thus, increasing the popularity of Pompeii by making others want to achieve the same status.
From the 1760’s onwards, an architect and designer called Robert Adam was very active in remodeling stately houses to reflect a neoclassical interior design. One house that he adapted was Kenwood House in Hampstead Heath. He designed a hall here to look as if it was from Pompeii. He did this by using colour schemes inspired by Pompeii as well as motifs found in the Villa of Cicero, like honeysuckle motifs as well as arabesques. He also included enclaves in the walls for traditional Roman urns and busts. Fig.4 – Kenwood House
Again, this not a true representation of Pompeii, as it has been adapted to look much grander by, for example, using gold furnishings. Although, it does use original designs that would have been common in the houses of the richer citizens of Pompeii, like having pillars in the rooms and having paintings on the ceilings. So it can be argued that even though it is a pastiche of styles, it remains distinctly inspired by Pompeii, demonstrating the influence the popularity of Pompeii had in the 18th century.
Another significant home remodeled by Adam was Osterly Park. This was also designed in the 1760’s. One fascinating feature of the house that strongly shows the Pompeian influence is the slight peristyle visible from the front of the house. Fig. 5 There are also lots of Greek and Roman murals on the
stone, reflecting the influence of these popular styles. Also, the pillars are slender and very identifiably Pompeian.
This immense increase in wealthy people decorating their houses to reflect Pompeii caused a snowball affect in other wealthy people – they also wanted to be “in” on this trend. The beautiful interior design found in Pompeii and appropriated in Britain meant that it was the height of fashion to decorate your own home in a similar way, therefore increasing the popularity of and interest in Pompeii.
One aspect that greatly improved the popularity of Pompeii was the introduction of Le Antichità, a documentation of paintings, and sculptures from the houses of Pompeii. It also contained motifs from the Villa of Cicero that became very famous and were soon appropriated everywhere, especially in paintings and interior design. An example of these motifs is a depiction of a flying maenad Fig. 6 Other motifs include centaur couples.
“The plates in Le Antichità used the ancient world as inspiration; reality was merged with artistic license to produce something resembling the expectations of the eighteenth century” (Rediscovery and Reception booklet, Lindsey Annable). This helped to increase Pompeii’s popularity, as the illustrations in it incorporated fashionable ideas of the time, which made the Britons believe that the designs in Pompeii were more advanced than they actually were, another reason why these styles impacted so heavily on the interior design at the time. One advantage of having this as a source meant that impressive motifs could be documented before the Bourbon King at the time stopped any artistic copies of the ruins or artifacts being taken. However, since this document was mostly sketches that relied on the memory of the artists, it contained lots of inaccurate documentations that transmitted incorrect ideas of what the art in Pompeii was really like. This meant that the depictions shown in Le Antichità could not really do justice to what the original motifs looked like in the Villa of Cicero. As well as this, Le Antichità only showed the motifs in isolation, but this was overcome by William Gell’s illustrations in the 19th century. Motifs shown in both documents became very popular, and caused a huge increase in interior design influenced by Pompeii. For example, the Red Hall at Syon House, which has Pompeian Maenads on the ceiling. Fig. 7
This example, as well as many more, demonstrates the popularity of Pompeii – people wanted to be surrounded by Pompeian pastiches due to its increased popularity and exclusiveness for the upper class, (the only ones rich and cultured enough to acquire and appreciate the riches of Pompeii), so they did this by incorporating Pompeian styles and motifs into their interior design.
To summarise the key ideas of reception in this period (18th century), it really was just the preserve of the elite. In other words, no one but members of the upper class and the aristocracy simply had enough money to go and visit Pompeii in person, let alone transport paintings and statues back to the UK. These people shared their love of Pompeii with each other, encouraging others to go on their respective Grand Tours. The Grand Tourists also appropriated motifs, (especially those found in the Villa of Cicero), styles and artifacts to appear much grander, using artistic license to be able to impress others even more. These were often displayed in the forms of paintings, interior design and furniture. These items were very expensive, so only the very rich could furnish their houses with them. By doing so, it can be suggested that this helped to keep the popularity of Pompeii alive in Britain, as the Grand Tourists could constantly “experience” Pompeii without leaving their homes. Lastly, the Grand Tourists were seen as the only group in society that were able to properly appreciate the knowledge about what happened in Pompeii, and what the Pompeian’s left behind, so this social closure kept the enjoyment of Pompeii largely to just the upper class.
Reception and popularity of Pompeii in the 19th century
However, the advances made in the 19th century increased the popularity of Pompeii even more. Major changes to the excavations came about, for example having Giuseppe Fiorelli as the site supervisor, and disallowing tourists to just take home with them what they want. This helped to protect the site, and ensure that it was excavated carefully and with proper planning. Furthermore, by this time period, much more of Pompeii had been excavated than was available to the Grand Tourists, so it can be argued that there was more knowledge available to aid in the increasing awareness and love of Pompeii. Also, there was a great focus in the 19th century of people comparing their lives to the Pompeian’s, and wanting to discover how their lives compared to their own. There was also another surge in Pompeii inspired interior design.
One such designed place is the Pompeian Court at the Crystal Palace, London. Fig. 8 This was supposed to be a partial recreation of the House of the Tragic Poet, (discovered in 1824). The design for the Court was compiled from sketches done in Pompeii by Digby Wyatt. The Court burnt down in 1936, but records have provided us with the necessary information we need to assess the usefulness of the exhibition.
One way the interior design of Pompeii has been used in this Court is in the motif of a flying maenad (see arrow). Other ways include statues, columns and wall paintings, including those from the original House of the Tragic Poet. However, this apparent “authenticity” has been critiqued to be misleading. In other words, the designers of this place chose only the most popular and prestigious decorations and motifs to implement here, so the “overall schemes were pastiche”, (Hales and Earle, 2009). Hales and Earle thought this was “subject to modern taste, opinions and practical necessity” (Ibid). What this means is that the separate elements of the Court were put together in such a way that it was unrepresentative of the houses in Pompeii; the Court had been updated to fit “Victorian taste” (Ibid), and show off the new technology the Victorians had thanks to the Industrial Revolution. Therefore, the Court is not an accurate presentation of Pompeii, and the reliability must be questioned.
However, many people thoroughly enjoyed the inclusiveness created by this court. It was not expensive to go and experience a new situation that the majority of people wouldn’t have got to enjoy in person because of financial restraints. They Court was said to be fully immersive and “complete and perfect”, (Letter to the Editor, The Morning Post. 20th July 1854). The Court increased awareness and allowed Pompeii’s popularity to spread by allowing more people to access knowledge of it.
In conclusion, Pompeii experienced increasing popularity in the 18th and 19th centuries, partially due to the immense appropriations of Pompeii shown through interior design. For example, in the 18th century, Adam designed Kenwood House, Osterly Park and Syon House to reflect a classical Pompeian style. This continued into the 19th century when the popularity of Pompeii meant that the Pompeian Court was a must to create. These examples of show us that even though the design of these places was exaggerated at times to show the best of what Pompeii had to offer, they did contain relevant, accurate motifs and reconstructions of original Pompeian artifacts that inspired others to decorate their houses in this way too, popularising the ancient city of Pompeii.
Personally, I agree with the idea that “the fate of Pompeii may be compared to a man who only becomes famous after his death” – (Mattusch, 2013, p.4) This ideology encouraged people to become interested in Pompeii, as they wanted to experience and be the educated about this new, invaluable source of knowledge. As well as this, the source suggests that the city still had lots to offer, which was infinitely proven in the 19th century, in terms of new discoveries and appropriations including interior designs that expanded the current knowledge on the subject.
In terms of other ways I could have answered this complex question, I could have focused on paintings or illustrations to show the popularity of Pompeii, but I thought that interior design showed this popularity the best.
· Pliny the Younger, Letter to Cornelius Tacitus, 6.20, translated by B. Radice
· Fig. 1 – https://ridiculouslyinteresting.com/2013/07/22/preserved-loaf-of-bread-discovered-at-pompeii/
· Horace Walpole’s Letter, dated 14th June 1740, cited in Haggerty, 2011, Horace Walpole’s Letters: Masculinity and Friendship in the Eighteenth Century (Bucknell) p.63-65
· Lady Charlotte Lindsey, letter dated 1815, Sweet, R. (2012) Cities and the Grand Tour: The British in Italy c. 1690-1820 (Cambridge) p.49
· Mattusch, 2013, rediscovering the Ancient World on the Bay of Naples 1710-1890 (London) p.4
· Fig. 4 – https://www.google.co.uk/url?sa=i=j==s=images==rja=8=0ahUKEwjJpMumqJTYAhUGIcAKHb5qCQMQjRwIBw=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.pinterest.com%2Floraineashley47%2Fkenwood-house-hampstead-heath%2F=AOvVaw2s_Fg7OwECfP-kKvkgzUuI=1513609894968783
· Fig. 5 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osterley_Park
· Fig. 6 – https://www.pinterest.com/pin/539587599086688787/
· Fig 7 – https://www.pinterest.co.uk/iconofile/robert-adam-neoclassical/ , plate 53 of Volume IV of Le Antichità (Maenad motif)
· Fig. 8 – http://www.old-print.com/cgi-bin/item/L1120854007/search/35-Print-Plan-Pompeian-Court-Crystal-Palace-M-Digby-Wyatt-Architect-1854-007L112-Old-Original#
· Fig. 2 – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hamilton_(diplomat)
· Fig. 3 – https://intothebook.wordpress.com/2012/07/13/18th-century-papparazzi-profile-lady-elizabeth-webster-holland-12/
· (Rediscovery and Reception: The Popularity of Pompeii in Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century Britain, Key Stage 5 Programme, Lindsey Annable)
· Hales and Earle (2009), ‘Pompeii in the Crystal Palace: Comparing Victorian and Modern Virtual, Immersive Environments’, EVA 2009 London Conference, 6th-8th July, p.39.
· Letter to the Editor, The Morning Post. 20th July 1854, 135