Thursday, 6 December 2012

"Pompeii in Fact and Fiction": places as ideas

Portrait of Winckelmann by A. von Maron
I found Pompeii in Fact and Fiction by Wolfgang Leppman when I was working on my MA dissertation (the digital unification of the Temple of Isis in Pompeii and the related frescoes). It has proven to be useful and interesting for many reasons.
In the first place it states, already in 1968, that Pompeii is, at the same time, a geographical place, an historical site and the sum of many interpretations. So much so, that it is often impossible to say when one ends and another begins. If this can be considered problematic by many hard archaeologists, it is to me one of the (many) reasons that make Pompeii a unique place and the ideal candidate for digital projects aiming to deliver complex (i.e. multilayered) information.

The book shows chronologically how tourist’s expectations have been changing during the years. Summarising  roughly, he identifies at least three major trends. 
According to Leppmann, during Neoclassicism tourists expected to see in Pompeii magnificent relics, consistent with the idealisation of the Roman period they had developed during their reverential study of the Classics. It is easy to imagine how disappointed they were when they saw small dwellings or little, asymmetrical temples as the Temple of Isis. This impression was amplified by the absence of most of the large Pompeian villas (still to be uncovered). As Leppamnn remarks, words like “smallness” “narrow” “doll’s house” “mummified” appear often in the first reports.
However, Pompeii (and Herculaneum even more) provoked the enthusiasm of all the art lovers, and influenced a whole trend of figurative art, fashion and interior design.

Madame de Stael as Corinne,
by F.P. Gerard
There is a big change in tourists’ attitude and expectations during the Romanticism. Leppmann identifies the turning point in the publication of the Madame de Stael’s novel “Corinne”. It is probably just a convention and, apparently, the novel itself is more relevant to reception’s studies than to literary ones. However, this is the first famous work of art in which Pompeii is not used as a subject for scholarly descriptions and investigations but as a set for a love story. What is even more important and innovative is that the informative value of the site is definitely less important, in the eyes of the characters (and of the author’s, I assume), than the indefinable emotional connection with the past that they feel there. 
The Neoclassical attempts to visualise how the place might have looked like, are not part of de Stael sensibility (that Leppmann uses as an indicator of the whole Romantic sensibility). The charm of Pompeii is in its being a ruin, a sad relic of a faded past. Tourists go there not to learn about ancient lives but to be touched by their memories and to reflect (very Romanticly) upon caducity of life. This is also why isolated and marginal places (even better with a good view on the terrible Vesuvius) are preferred to functional places like the forum or the basilica. 

Later on, always according to Leppmann, Pompei becomes more and more a literary place, a sort of flexible narrative space that only partially coincides with the physical one. Many novels tell stories about Pompeian ancient inhabitants (living or ghosts) and Pompeii consolidates its place in social imaginary. 
Screenshot from the movie
"Viaggio in Italia" by R. Rossellini
Plus, in the growing trend of oneiric, symbolic and even psychoanalytic novels and short stories, Pompeii became something like an emotions trigger. Its strong and almost violent connection with love, death and sex provokes in the characters intimate experiences, so much intense that sometimes they are simply unbearable.

What is Pompeii today? A source of information to understand ancient art and history? A place where it is possible to experience an emotional connection with past lives? An almost archetypical element of the social subconscious? The crossing point of hundreds of stories?
All of the above and even something new?

It is practically possible to put all this information together and display it in a meaningful way?

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for your grateful informations, am working in Tourism Portal, so it will be helpful info for my works.