The rediscovery of Paestum and Metaponto in the eighteenth century

by Silvio Sannino

The sites of Metaponto e Paestum constitute some of the most shining examples of classical art in southern Italy. Today they are known to the whole world for theirs beauty e historical importance but it was not always so: until the nineteenth century they were almost totally forgotten.

Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the temple of Neptune in Paestum 

The temples of Metaponto and Paestum in the historical memory of the kingdoms

When it comes to the "rediscovery" of the sites of Metaponto and Paestum, it is necessary to operate one clarification: it does not refer so much to the natives, as to the international community of scholars. It is no coincidence that, when it comes to the "discovery" of sites, the international publications of scholars who arrived in the kingdom through the Grand Tour, who gave Europe an awareness of the historical-artistic importance of these places.

Historians of the kingdom interested in local history not rarely they knew the temples: in addition to being obvious geographical points of reference they had been studied or at least mentioned in various works of local history over the centuries, with results, however, generally approximate and often even of dubious historical validity. The purpose of these studies was related to cataloging and to the enumeration of "Homeland memories" rather than the critical examination of the intrinsic artistic value of the sites examined.

La riscoperta di Paestum e Metaponto nel diciottesimo secolo
nineteenth-century lithography representing Metaponto

Whenever such monuments were described by the historians of the kingdom it was not to grasp the artistic and architectural value, but exalt them as a historical memory of their territory. Furthermore isolation interior of many areas of the kingdom of Naples led to an approximate knowledge of the temples even in the capital. So wrote the famous architect in 1750 Soufflot referring to the temples of Paestum:

«How to explain that these precious monuments of the Greeks have remained unknown for their shape and their structure even in Naples which, by land, is no more than twenty or twenty-five leagues from them? On the other hand, many "onlookers" going to Greece or Egypt to see and draw ancient monuments there have crossed the Gulf of Salerno and have probably passed in sight of these without even seeing them ».

La riscoperta di Paestum e Metaponto nel diciottesimo secolo
Temples of Paestum, Sminck van Pitloo, 1824

The rediscovery in the nineteenth century

The discovery of these places by the travelers of the Grand Tour was very much sensational: in this way it was possible to admire the architectural wonders of the ancient Greeks without going in Sicily or Greece, inaccessible and distant destinations compared to Paestum and, to a lesser extent, to Metaponto. A deeper knowledge of the temples of Paestum in eighteenth-century contexts is initially found in the intellectual circle close to the Count Felice Gazzola, informed of their existence in turn by the architect Mario Gioffredi.

It is probably through contacts with this club that Soufflot himself learned about it. The first edition with prints relating to the temples of Paestum was published in Paris in 1764. Its author, GPM Dumont, accompanied Soufflot on his trip to Naples, also coming into contact with the Gazzola club. The edition, published 14 years after his trip to Paestum, enjoyed some popularity, despite the imprecision of numerous tables. A subsequent publication (1765) was made in the Anglo-Saxon context by Filippo Morghen.

La riscoperta di Paestum e Metaponto nel diciottesimo secolo
A. Plitoo, Paestum

There were six in it prints with views of the temples of Paestum, accompanied by further views of Bay, Pozzuoli and other antiquities bells. These drawings also appear relatively inaccurate. There will be numerous subsequent publications, however, despite the presence of undoubted original components, they will generally deal with elaborate material either in the Gazola circle or deriving from the editions of Dumont and Morghen. You will have to wait for the work of the Piranesi to get a publication capable of return in full on paper the architectural strength of the temples of Paestum and the clarity of the Doric style that composes them.

As for the rediscovery of the temple of Hera near Metaponto we are faced with a much more inaccessible story: unlike Paestum the connections towards the Lucania they were extremely more difficult and dangerous. The province was infamous among travelers for being terribly poor, awkward and infested with brigands.

La riscoperta di Paestum e Metaponto nel diciottesimo secolo
Metaponto, watercolored lithograph

One of the first journeys with informative purposes made in Lucania was led by Vivant Denon, secretary of the French embassy in Naples, a character very close to Ferdinand IV. The expedition set out on the trail of the city of Metaponto, of which, however, no monumental remains were found, except the Doric temple of Hera, whose remains had survived the centuries.

The engravings on the pages of the famous Voyage pittoresque ou description des royaumes de Naples et de Sicile, the result of that expedition, published in Paris between 1781 and 1786, became one of the first testimonies of an artistic and architectural interest towards the temple of Hera, in which Dennon found one stylistic similarity with the Doric columns of Paestum. A further impetus to research related to the temple of Hera came during the Murattian period.

Classical art, further re-evaluated throughout Europe thanks to Bonapartism and to the imperial taste promoted by it, it had a place under Murat broad regard within the ideological self-representation of the crown. A shining example of this is offered by numismatic documentation: numerous commemorative medals were minted, the style of which clearly followed that of the coins and classical representations; just think of the medal in honor of Carolina Murat

La riscoperta di Paestum e Metaponto nel diciottesimo secolo
medal in honor of Carolina Murat

It was coined in Naples in 1805, inspired by a didrachma of Neapolis with androcephalus bull. The season of renewed archaeological interest during the Murattian period led to one biennial excavation campaign (1813-14) on the territory of Metaponto. Among the finds that were found to be of particular interest were "two mosaics in polychrome bas-relief". Their discovery, made known through one of them publication by the'Académie des Beaux-Arts Désiré-Raoul Rochette, went to insert the developments of the archaeological activity in the Metapontine area in the wider controversy on the polychromy of Greek architecture.

The commitment made in those years was subsequently brought forward by the French archaeologist and numismatist Honoré-Théodoric-Paul-Joseph d'Albert, Duke of Luynes. Its archaeological missions, mainly related to the cities Magna Graecia of the south, will be conducted with the collaboration of the architect JosephFrédéric Debacq.

These expeditions led to the publication of the volume Métaponte in Paris in 1833. In it the author collected «the results of his last trip in 1828 on the first excavations in the area of the temple of Apollo and the temple of Hera». In a "substantially unchanged marginalized" context, Luynes' publications constituted a significant increase in knowledge of the Magna Graecia archaeological evidence of the Lucania in the European cultural landscape.

La riscoperta di Paestum e Metaponto nel diciottesimo secolo
Giovanni Battista Piranesi, View of the remains of the supposed College


P. Panza, Antiques / ancient science / imagination: the Piranesi and the discoveries of Herculaneum, Pompeii, Paestum in S. Bieri, N. Ossanna Cavadini (edited by), The reinterpretation of the classic, from the relief to the romantic view in historical graphics, SKIRA, Lugano, 2021.

JR Serra, G. Simoncini (edited by), The fortune of Paestum and the modern memory of the Doric 1750-1830, vol. II, Centro Di, Florence, 1986.

G. Simoncini, Architecture and Nature in JR Serra, G. Simoncini (edited by), The fortune of Paestum and the modern memory of the Doric 1750-1830, vol. II, Centro Di, Florence, 1986.

G. Zuchtriegel, Piranesi in Paestum. The sound of architecture, arte'm, Naples, 2017.

S. Di Liello, In Lucania, beyond Paestum: ancient and nature in the footsteps of Nèstore and Epèo in B. Mussari, G. Scamardì (edited by), Il Sud Italia, sketches and travel notes. The interpretation of the image, the search for an identity, «ArcHistoR Extra», 5 (2019), suppl. to «ArchHistoR» 11 (2019).

E. Chiosi, L. Mascoli, G. Vallet, The discovery of Paestum in JR Serra (edited by), The fortune of Paestum and the modern memory of the Doric 1750-1830, vol. I, Centro Di, Florence, 1986.

GC Argan, preface to JR Serra (edited by), The fortune of Paestum and the modern memory of the Doric 1750-1830, vol. I, Centro Di, Florence, 1986.

S. Lang, The Early Publications of the Temples at Paestum, "Journal of the Warburg and Courtauld Institutes", 13, 1/2, (1950).









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