8 June 2017

Giuseppe Fiorelli - archaeologist

The man whose painstaking work saved Pompeii

Giuseppe Fiorelli was in charge of the  Pompeii excavations from 1860-75
Giuseppe Fiorelli was in charge of the
Pompeii excavations from 1860-75
Giuseppe Fiorelli, the archaeologist largely responsible for preserving the ruins of Pompeii, was born on this day in 1823, in Naples.

It was due to Fiorelli’s painstaking excavation techniques that much of the lost Roman city on the Neapolitan coast was preserved as it had looked when, in 79 AD, it was totally submerged under volcanic ash following the eruption of Vesuvius.

He also hit upon the idea of filling the cavities in the hardened lava and solidified ash left behind by long-rotted bodies and vegetation with plaster to create a model of the person or plant that had been engulfed.  This became known as the Fiorelli process.

Little is known of Fiorelli’s early life apart from some details of his academic career, which clearly show him to be precociously clever.  He studied law from the age of 11 and obtained a degree in legal studies at the age of 18. He was also a student of italic languages, numismatics – the study of coins, paper money and medals - and epigraphy – the study and interpretation of ancient inscriptions.

Having chosen to pursue his interest in archaeology and the study of ancient civilisations, he wrote an article on numismatics for an erudite archaeological journal that won him membership of a number of academies at the age of 20, including the Accademia Ercolanese and the prestigious Instituto di Corrispondenza Archeologica.

One of the main streets in Pompeii
One of the main streets in Pompeii
In 1844, still only 21, he was appointed an inspector in the Soprintendenza Generale degli Scavi – the body responsible for all excavations in the Naples region – and in 1847 inspector specifically for the Pompeii site.  His role at that stage was essentially to supervise other archaeologists to ensure their work was carried out in accordance with standards set down by the Soprintendenza.

In a bizarre twist to his story, in 1848 Fiorelli was arrested and imprisoned, in part as a result of malicious accusations made by rival archaeologists.

One was Carlo Bonucci, who had been demoted from his position as Architect-Director in charge of Pompeii after being found guilty of dishonesty but had been restored to his position when his successor fell ill.  Bonucci, an established archaeologist of twice Fiorelli’s age, resented his techniques being questioned by someone he regarded as a young upstart, and when the riots that erupted in Italy in 1848 prompted a collapse of government and a crackdown on political activists, he reported Fiorelli as nationalist republican.

Fiorelli was arrested and held in prison from April to June 1849, at which point he was released only to be re-arrested, this time after a member of the Accademia Ercolanese made a similar complaint.  It was January the following year before the case against him was dropped.

Fiorelli's techniques enabled models of the victims of the  eruption to be created exactly as they were buried
Fiorelli's techniques enabled models of the victims of the
eruption to be created exactly as they were buried
The episode set back his career but in 1853 he was offered a job as personal secretary to Leopold, Count of Syracuse, brother of the Bourbon King Ferdinand II, who used his influence to put Fiorelli in charge of the excavations at Cumae, another archaeological site in the Naples area.

Unrest in Italy continued, and as Leopold’s secretary, Fiorelli was able to use his influence with him in 1860, when Garibaldi’s Expedition of the Thousand set its sights on Naples, seeking to unify Italy under the King of Sardinia, Victor Emmanuel II. Fiorelli drafted a letter for Leopold to deliver to Ferdinand’s successor, King Francis, urging him to abdicate gracefully rather than be defeated.

Later in the year, Fiorelli returned to Pompeii as Inspector-Director of Excavations and began the work that was to make him famous.

Fiorelli introduced new excavation techniques. Where other archaeologists would attempt to dig out streets and uncover adjoining buildings from the bottom upwards, Fiorelli would work at all times from the surface downwards, carefully removing the covering layers of soil and volcanic materials, which took longer but, he felt, reduced the risk of damaging precious artefacts as they were uncovered.

His idea to fill cavities with plaster allowed the archaeologists to recreate the position and look of a body at the time of death.

Fiorelli directed the excavation of Pompeii from 1860 to 1875.  He was appointed director of the Naples National Archaeological Museum in 1863. In 1875 he was appointed as the director general of Italian Antiquities and Fine Arts. 

Fiorelli died in January 1896 in Naples. The cause of his death is unknown.

The Greek remains at Cumae
The Greek remains at Cumae
Travel tip:

Before Pompeii, Fiorelli was assigned to the ruins of the Greek city of Cumae, an ancient city of Magna Graecia on the coast of the Tyrrhenian Sea. Cumae was the first Greek colony on the mainland of Italy. The ruins of the city lie near the modern village of Cuma. In Roman mythology, there is an entrance to the underworld located at Avernus, a crater lake near Cumae. 

Travel tip:

Pompeii is believed to have grown on the site of a seventh or sixth century BC settlement by the Oscans that came under the domination of Rome in the fourth century BC, and became a Roman colony in 80 BC after soldiers of the Roman Republic crushed a rebellion there. By the time it was destroyed, its population as a port city was put at around 11,000 people. Evidence of its fate in the 79 AD eruption was first found in a surviving letter by Pliny the Younger, who described the death of his uncle, Pliny the Elder, an admiral of the Roman fleet, as he tried to rescue citizens.

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