The Roman city of Pompeii began undergoing excavation around 1748, when King Charles VII of Naples (the later Charles III of Spain) decided to loot the ancient city’s art for his personal collection. Nearly a century later, the appointment of Giuseppe Fiorelli (1823-1896)—an Italian professor of archaeology from the University of Naples—as the head of the excavation of Pompeii, was a healthy change for the looted city.
Fiorelli directed the excavation of Pompeii from 1863-1875. Although some of his methods remained somewhat primitive and artifact removal, unfortunately, continued to persist, Giuseppe Fiorelli greatly improved the way Pompeii was being preserved. He developed several methods that have been embraced, perfected and enhanced by the next generations of archaeologists that came after him. For one, Fiorelli disapproved of the excavation system of digging out the roadways of Pompeii in order to find and excavate ancient buildings from the street level up. Instead, he found the tops of the structures and excavated the buildings from the top down to the floor-level. In addition to these excavation methods, Giuseppe Fiorelli also studied the topography, city planning and construction of Pompeii. At the end of his term as director of the Pompeii excavation, he published a book called Descrizione di Pompei (Description of Pompeii) in 1875. Yet, out of all of Fiorelli’s innovations, one clearly stands out—the plaster casts of Pompeii.
During his excavations, Giuseppe Fiorelli found that the decomposing and deteriorating materials from the ruins of Pompeii often left empty spaces in the ash that buried the ancient city. These cavities served as natural molds that, when filled with plaster, resulted in statues showing the dead in their final moments. The same technique could be used to cast wooden structures, such as beams and stairs, that had rotted away long ago. Unfortunately, Fiorelli did not clearly document his method for plaster casting, and much of the process remains a mystery. Researchers do know that he often added iron rods to provide structure for the casts of human remains—especially in the casts of large adults. Some casts of children do, however, contain only the original ancient bones underneath the plaster. Despite the dubious nature of Giuseppe Fiorelli’s casting techniques, the plaster casts continue to haunt and inspire viewers to this day, and the evocation of those very emotions is what the root ‘muse’ is all about in the word, museum.
Written by C. Keith Hansley
- Pompeii: The Dead Speak. A documentary Published by Smithsonian, 2016.