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The colour of Pompeii

Thursday 25 May 2017

This is a sequel to those tourist pictures of local colour around the Bay of Naples. It’s a group of four cartes-de-visite of the wall decorations revealed when the ancient city of Pompeii was ex­cav­ated. Once again these are hand-coloured, and the colour makes them appealing.

Four hand-coloured carte-de-visite copies of engraved illustrations of ancient wall decorations at Pompeii. The backs of the cards are blank.

From about 1750, when archaeological excavation of Pompeii began, the site became an essential stop for wealthy British trav­el­lers undertaking a Grand Tour. The young John Soane was there in 1780 and collected a fragment of plaster which he took back to London. It is still in his collection, preserved along with drawings, models, and books about Pompeii.

A fragment of plaster with the real Pompeian red paint. [Sir John Soane’s Museum collection].

Architects like Soane were thrilled by the colours they saw at Pompeii. Pompeian red became one of the signature colours of late eighteenth century English interiors​—​though recent in­vest­ig­a­tions have suggested that some of those reds were not quite what the Romans saw.

My carte-de-visite pictures are artefacts from a later time​—​when steamships, railways, and middle-class holidays brought larger numbers of tourists to Pompeii.

At least two of the images are copied from copper engravings from Gli Ornati delle pareti ed i pavimenti delle stanze dell’Anti­ca Pompeii [The ornaments of the walls and floors of the rooms of ancient Pompeii], a book first published in Naples in 1796. There is a copy of this book in Soane’s collection. You can find libraries that hold copies via WorldCat. You can also download a digital copy of the first volume of the 1838 edition from the University of Heidelberg.

filed under Archaeology + Architecture + Collecting

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