The first edition of Pompeiana by Sir William Gell and J.P. Gandy was published in parts between 1817 and 1819. As is remarked in the preface: ‘Pompeii was begun upon in 1748; and it may at first excite our surprise, that from this date to the present day, no work has appeared in the English language upon the subject of its domestic antiquities, except a few pages by Sir William Hamilton, in the Archaeologia.’
Gell and Gandy are not attempting to emulate any of the large volumes, replete with measurements and illustrations, already published in Italy, of which the ‘bulk renders them unfit for the traveller, and their costliness unattainable to many who would value them most’. Their work, in ‘handbook’ size, with plans and illustrations, is a guide to the parts of the city uncovered so far (a second edition in two volumes, published in 1832 under Gell’s name alone, describes ‘the Result of Excavations Since 1819’).
In this later edition he is prophetic in his warning that ‘time will incalculably diminish the freshness of those objects … stripped of their external coats by the rains of winter or the burning suns of summer’. There have been no further excavations on the site for many years, as the archaeological team focuses on conservation, restoration and support of the increasingly endangered buildings. (Many were locked on our visit, and it was very frustrating when the excellent audioguide invited us to ‘walk into the atrium’ which was visible but inaccessible because of a padlocked iron gate. I assume that, in the low season, not enough site guardians are employed to enable more buildings to be open?)
I came across a very interesting article about Gell and his works by Rosemary H. Sweet here: Gell was apparently self-deprecating about the first edition, for which the illustrations were sketched with the aid of his camera lucida (first patented only ten years previously by William Hyde Wollaston), while the site custodian, part of whose job was precisely to prevent the collection of images, was bribed to look the other way.
It is true that the first and the second editions are slim by comparison with the monumental Topography of Rome and Its Vicinity in which he took more pride. However, as the extract above from the preface shows, he was fully aware that he was providing information not obtainable elsewhere without both expense and a reading knowledge of Italian, and thus making British scholars and antiquarians aware for the first time of the nature and scale of the discoveries.
Gell does not deal in any detail with the gateway into the building (no. 7 on the plan here) behind the Porticus Concordiae Augustae et Pietati, which I found one of the most fascinating structures on the site; it seems likely that it was still collapsed at his visit, though it had been restored by the time it was discussed in his 1875 Descrizione di Pompei by Giuseppe Fiorelli, who refers to the ‘most fine and delicate work’ of shoots with leaves and birds among them. (An archaeologist and one-time revolutionary, Fiorelli was the first excavator to realise the significance of the bone-filled hollows in the compressed ash and fill them with plaster, thus revealing the citizens of Pompeii in their death-throes.)
The gateway consists of a square arch of marble piercing the brick façade of the building, and with a semi-circular, apparently hollow brick arch above it.
The whole edifice was funded by one Eumachia, a wealthy and powerful woman who was a particular patron of the fullers of Pompeii, who raised a statue to her in gratitude, describing her a priestess of Venus.
Eumachia’s generosity is recorded on the pediment of the portico itself: ‘Eumachia Luci filia sacerdos publica nomine suo et Marci Numistri Frontonis fili chalcidicum cryptam porticus Concordiae Augustae Pietati sua pequnia fecit eademque dedicavit.’ (‘Eumachia, daughter of Lucius [Eumachius], a public priestess, in her own name and [in that] of her son, Marcus Numistrius Fronto, built at her own expense the chalcidicum, the porticus, and the crypta, and dedicated them to Concordia Augusta [a cult promulgated by Livia, widow of Augustus] and to Pietas.’)
At first glance the sculpted decoration on the arch is fairly familiar and predictable: symmetrical leaf and flower decorations like those found elsewhere on the site (above) and indeed across the empire, which were subsequently much emulated. (The motifs in this vaulted ceiling, for example, bring to mind a similar pattern closer to home …)
But looking more closely (less easy than it might be, as the doorway has recently been encased in perspex to save the carving from water erosion, and the perspex is blotched with muddy water), you begin to see details which are very far from symmetrical. There are, unsurprisingly, birds among the foliage, but also rabbits, a grasshopper, and even snails.
There is no relative scale (unless Pompeii was indeed once plagued by giant locusts), but what looks like an almost playful use of these animal motifs which was later lost in their solemn and symmetrical descendants of the Byzantine period.
Did Eumachia approve of these frivolous, rather naïve decorations around the entrance to her huge, grand building? It would be nice to think so.