Domenico Fontana, one of the most famous Swiss architects in the world, was the unwitting discoverer of Pompeii well 200 years before the official discovery.

Yet it is strange: the snow-capped and distant mountains of the Swiss they seem to have very little in common with the sweet banks of Tyrrhenian Sea. 
It's not absolutely true. Indeed, despite their splendid isolation in the mountains, the Swiss always had great interest in the sea and in Naples there was one of the most rich and lively Swiss colonies of Europe, since the Renaissance: a fellowship between peoples which joined the business acumen of Alpine entrepreneurs to the wealth of Southern Italy.
But if the most powerful bankers, the Meuricoffre brothers, they face the oblivion of their memories with the silent composure of the Swiss people, the same did not happen for Domenico Fontana, which left evidence of his extraordinary works throughout the city.

Domenico Fontana portrait
Portrait of Domenico Fontana

Ticino origins, Italian heart

Fontana was born in the very small Melide in the '500, a village of about 500 inhabitants in Canton Ticino, in very particular times: the Swiss he was in fact facing the greater emigration of young people in its history.

With no future but that of modest farmers, in fact, the Alpine troops specialized inmilitary art and crafts to become the best and most famous soldiers and craftsmen in Europe, in a migratory flow that brought the Swiss mercenaries and workers in every country of the Old Continent. In this context Domenico Fontana was from a young age a great lover of culture and ancient history, from an early age he devoted himself to the studies of architecture and, like many of his peers, at the age of twenty left for Italy with the dream of being able to draw art. And it became architect.

From the banks of the lake Ceresio therefore passed first on those of Tiber and, after having collected enormous successes and fortunes thanks to his projects (he succeeded in designing the machine capable of raise the very heavy obelisk in the center of San Pietro! He also raised three other obelisks, arousing astonishment throughout Europe for his skill), then found acceptance on the Gulf of Naples how architect of the viceroys. Initially his expertise was requested for plumbing work, then he was entrusted with the design of the Royal Palace. Era the year 1594 and Domenico Fontana would never have abandoned Naples.

Domenico Fontana Royal Palace
Royal Palace of Naples, the work of Domenico Fontana

A seemingly simple job

Just in those times Muzio Tuttavilla, count of Sarno, bought the fief of Torre Annunziata to exploit the agricultural land. The Swiss Domenico Fontana was then hired, believed to be the leading expert in hydraulic engineering, to build a modern aqueduct which guaranteed water supplies to the new fiefdomWith a handshake and one pays a lot the agreement was made and the work began.

When the excavations began to touch the black and ashen soils of the ancient Pompeii, however, they began to come out of the ground gold coins, tombstones and inscriptions in Latin on red walls that housed perfectly preserved mosaics and marble floors: Fontana himself was notified of the findings and, having arrived among the excavations, he began to see the finds in person.

He realized that something was wrong and under his feet there was something really big, but he couldn't even remotely imagine it was Pompeii. At the time the knowledge of the lost city they were not in fact sufficient to cast such an assumption.

A slab that recalls the event located in Via Nocera, in Pompeii
A slab commemorating the event located in Via Nocera, in Pompeii

Pompeii discovered by chance by Domenico Fontana

As in one impossible time machine, those red walls and those artifacts brought to mind the images studied in old and gnawed books from Roman libraries in which he had learned the art of architecture.

Those Latin writings and those bricks were supposed to be just the beginning of something very big, immense, too important to be destroyed as was happening to all Roman ruins of Naples precisely in those years, devastated to make room for magnificent noble palaces in the historic center.

Fontana therefore decided to do not investigate further.

That brief underground experience was in fact only there tip of the iceberg that would have been discovered well 150 years later from Spanish Joaquin de Aucubierre, on behalf of King Charles of Bourbon. Even there, however, the first director of the excavations fell into error: he believed he had found the ruins of Stabiae.

Structure Domenico Fontana Obelisks
The structure invented by Domenico Fontana to raise the obelisks

The end of the excavations: Pompeii will wait

The world, society, the powerful of the 1600 they probably weren't quite ready to face the magnificence of the Roman people: Fontana therefore decided to take away from his human and short life curiosity to find out what was beneath the ground he was beginning to explore. Others, on the other hand, argue that the Swiss architect simply was very ignorant, which is quite perplexing considering the cultural stature of the character.

What is very likely is that, if those ancient stones had been discovered in those years, they probably would have been in a hurry dismantled to build ornaments and jewelry that would have enriched the houses of the rich Neapolitan and Vesuvian families.

Net of speculation, what is certain is that Fontana ordered the excavation to be stopped and went to speak personally with Don Tuttavilla, in the hope of being able to convince him to modify the aqueduct project, but the noble, not understanding the real reasons for this request, he believed that the architect had only come there to ask an increase in pay: he dismissed him saying to continue the work and not to bother him further.

It was extremely criticized apparently by the client useless waste of money, but Fontana never revealed the reason for his choices that appeared senseless.

Discovery of Pompeii
The discovery of Pompeii in 1748

Why didn't Domenico Fontana discover Pompeii?

There are no documents that certify with certainty the reasons behind Fontana's choice not to continue the excavations and therefore it is not possible to give a certain answer.

Between the theories presented by many scholars, it is also thought that for the time unearthing a buried city was a sacrilege. Or, simply, that the Swiss architect had preferred finish his job cleanly since building a structure on a hypothetically empty ground he could compromise the stability of the aqueduct.

And meanwhile, from the Swiss Alps to Mount Vesuvius, the young Domenico Fontana did not imagine he had just discovered the first finds of Pompeii.
The genius of architecture, unaware, he gave an ancient gift to the future with the dignified silence of the Swiss people.

-Federico Quagliuolo


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