My father, a journalist with a long-lapsed Catholic upbringing, decided that it was essential that I learn Latin (which was still taught in some Australian schools in the 1960s), so a zombie language lurked in my school timetable to ambush me with verbal declensions, nouns with a bewildering array of nominative, accusative, genitive, dative, ablative, locative and vocative cases and other tortures.
It was taught by the headmaster, a humourless beanpole with an intriguingly acrobatic adam’s-apple. The text-book was almost as ancient as the language and I defaced my copy to read ‘EATINg for Today: Second Course: Eagle Soup’.
Behind its rather forbidding militaristic cover were a sparse array of illustrations. One, accompanying an abridged and simplified version of Pliny the Younger’s account of the destruction of Pompeii, was this black and white photograph which then inspired a morbid fascination in me and which has lodged in my visual memory ever since; the poor dog was making a last desperate attempt to bite through its chain as it was seared and killed instantly by the 300ºC pyroclastic flow, then rapidly buried in the falling burning ash and lava and mud flows from Vesuvius’ eruption in 79 A.D.
I only learn now, in recalling that haunting picture and writing this post, that the photographer was Giorgio Sommer, born on this date in 1834 (†1914), not in Italy as one might assume from his first name, but in Frankfurt am Main, Germany. Of his taking up the profession of photography, it is said that it was of necessity after his father gambled away the family fortune in a single night. In the 1850s he worked successfully in Rome for several years, before settling in Naples, where he opened a commercial studio in 1857 and maintaining the one in Rome, becoming one the richest and most highly regarded of professional photographers in Italy.
Over the next 50 years, he and his employees made and sold thousands of postcards, stereographs and other illustrated publications, mostly for the tourist trade in Italy, Malta, Tunisia, Switzerland and Austria. He is known for his series of photographs of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1872.
Sommer photographed archaeological digs in Pompeii and Herculaneum several times between 1865 and 1885 for Italian archaeologist, Giuseppe Fiorelli (1823–1896). In 1863, noticing cavities in the hardened layer of once-powdery ash that covered Pompeii to a depth of 3.5 metres, Fiorelli had the ingenious idea of pumping plaster into the spaces left by the victims’ bodies, thereby producing ghoulish lifelike casts of the corpses’ clothing and features that also encased their skeletons. The cavity of the writhing dog was discovered and filled with plaster, frozen in time like a sculpted photograph, on November 20, 1874, in the house of Marcus Vesonius Primus, in the fauce; the corridor at the entrance of the house located, using Fiorelli’s survey coordinates that are still employed today, in Region VI, Insula 14, Nr. 20.
Giorgio Sommer was there that very year to record in three-dimensions, appropriately with stereoscopy, the product of the ‘Fiorelli Process’ for which the archaeologist became known internationally and popularly.
As professor of archaeology at Naples University and director of excavations (1860–75), Fiorelli pioneered modern archaeology. Despite conflicts with the authorities which ended in his being jailed for a period, and with the antiquarians who regarded excavation of historic sites as little more that an opportunity to plunder at worst, or as a narrow study of art history at best, he established a systematic methodology of excavating a site meticulously layer by layer to look back into time as the early geologists, in particular Charles Lyell (1797-1875), had started to do before him. He founded a training school where both foreigners and Italians could learn archaeological technique and he made a particular study of the materials and building methods used in Pompeii.
That photography could be applied with archaeology was appreciated from the first announcement of its invention. When in 1839, the scientist and politician François Arago (1786–1853) was urging the delegates in the French Chamber of Deputies to buy Daguerre’s invention he pointed to the archaeological applications of the new technique.
The other key personality credited with the invention of photography, Henry Fox Talbot, was for 20 years engaged in the field of Assyriology. In the mid-1840s the archaeological excavation of the ancient cities of Nimrud and Nineveh had unearthed tablets and inscriptions from the Kingdom of Assyria (750-612 BC). Other scholars worked on deciphering Assyrian cuneiform script and Talbot, having already published books on etymology and philology and who could read almost a dozen languages including Hebrew, published his own translations of inscriptions and exchanged ideas and information with other Assyriologists such as Hincks, Julius Oppert (1825-1905), Edwin Norris (1795-1872) and George Smith (1840-1876).
Talbot included a print of a bust of Patroclus in his The Pencil of Nature (1844), which abounds in archaeological themes—collection, documentation, depiction of site and architecture, capturing things that might no longer be with us— using the sculpture to point out how the camera could capture a statue in diverse ways:
These delineations are susceptible of an almost unlimited variety: since in the first place, a statue may be placed in any position with regard to the sun, either directly opposite to it, or at any angle: the directness or obliquity of the illumination causing of course an immense difference in the effect. And when a choice has been made of the direction in which the sun’s rays shall fall, the statue may be then turned round on its pedestal, which produces a second set of variations no less considerable than the first. And when to this is added the change of size which is produced in the image by bringing the Camera Obscura nearer to the statue or removing it further off, it becomes evident how very great a number of different effects may be obtained from a single specimen of sculpture.
Photography had the flexibility to preserve the vision of the eye for others to see and study. In Talbot’s later publication The Talbotype Applied to Hieroglyphics he supported his antiquarian interests with the inclusion of three calotype prints.
Equipped with Daguerre’s and Talbot’s inventions, in the early 1840s archaeologists and travellers set out with cameras and chemicals to document ancient monuments and archaeological sites. Samuel Sharpe in his preface to an 1862 volume of stereoscopic photographs of Egypt by Francis Frith wrote:
The valley of the Nile has been visited by a variety of travellers, who have brought home drawings of the buildings made under various difficulties. Denon, following the French army, published a volume of views; but too often sketched hastily, perhaps while his comrades were engaged in battle. The scientific expedition sent out by Napoleon was accompanied by several artists; but their costly volumes too clearly show that the drawings received many of their last touches in Paris. Some of our English artists have also published beautiful volumes of the picturesque ruins in this land, most interesting for the draftsman; but we cannot but sometimes fancy that they have sacrificed somewhat of scientific accuracy to artistic effect. But when we look at Photographic views, we are troubled by no such misgivings. Here we have all the truthfulness of nature, all the reality of the objects themselves, and, at the same time, artistic effects which leave us nothing to wish for.
While invention of photography fuelled the desire for visual knowledge, the relative artistic merits of mechanical versus, manual illustration were still much debated. Classical subjects had come to be invested with an aura and visual representations of them had to preserve their long-established aesthetic authority against this new scientific interest.
Danish artist Christen Schjellerup Købke (1810–1848) produced drawings of Pompeii in the 1830s which on return to his studio he used as reference for paintings of the disinterred town that convey an impression of desolation, a place inhabited only by the endemic green wall lizards (Lacerta bilineata) and wild goats, a wilderness under the brooding brows of Vesuvius. The paintings were a patchwork of his drawings assembled to invoke the lost grandeur of the Roman Empire, and they disregard the fact that the site was swarming with tourist when he visited.
This stubborn visual picturesque is continued in the first camera views of Pompeii; the daguerreotypes of Alexander John Ellis made in 1841 trace the itinerary of popular guidebooks and pause at scenic outlooks along the tourist route that were often drawn in the preceding decades, beginning with the Street of the Tombs from whence most visitors from Naples approached the site, and on to the Forum and Basilica.
Forests of broken columns, a receding road bordered by funeral monuments, Mount Vesuvius looming behind the Temple of Jupiter are the romantic clichés that his photography perpetuate, though Ellis hoped that the precision of his daguerreotypes would replace the “mania to embellish” amongst painters like Købke that led to the disappointment of travellers.
Daguerreotypist Ellis was followed in quick succession by numbers of others using the calotype, including the Rev Calvert Richard Jones in 1846.
In the 1850s, John Shaw Smith (1811-1873) a colourful Irish amateur calotypist who toured the famous sites of the Mediterreanean, Egypt and the Holy Land between 1850-1852, was not averse to improving his negatives with pencil and ink additions and erasing items to achieve his artistic purpose.
Fausto and Felice Niccolini were documenting the extensive archaeological excavations and published the results in their four volume work Le case e di monumenti di Pompei disegnati e descritti that was published between 1854 and 1897 in response to the importance, given the rise of nationalism in Italy under the Neapolitan king, of classical heritage.
Firmin Eugène Le Dien (1817 – 1865) with Gustave Le Gray (1820–1884) applied the French version of the negative/positive process to pictures of Pompeii in the mid-1850s.
Fiorelli’s scientific approach meant that for him, everything at the excavation site was of value; anything found there might in later analysis prove to be crucial to understanding the past. Photography’s panopticism, in which everything in the frame is of importance, serves such a perspective perfectly.
Compared to Ellis’ picturesque, Sommer’s approach fulfilled Fiorelli’s needs once he understood them; they are ‘matter-of-fact’ in the true sense of the phrase. They eschew the spatial perspective of Ellis’ artistry in favour of a stratigraphic flatness. This ‘flattening of space’ is, according to art historian Adam Weinberg, the hallmark of Sommer’s style:
His compositions emphasize two-dimensional planes rather than attempting to produce an effect of three dimensions. Visual elements often block the viewer from entering the depicted space. A vanishing point is usually not provided; thus Sommer, in many cases, virtually abolishes conventional perspective … fore-, middle-, and background are condensed into a single plane, causing the depicted subject to appear as if it were actually rising to the surface of the image …. The eye is arrested not by monuments but by a rich accumulation of minutiae recorded as texture, edge to edge.
An instance, Entrata della casa del balcone, is discussed by Brigitte Desrochers in support of this reading of Sommer’s approach in her 2003 article ‘Giorgio Sommer’s Photographs of Pompeii’ in History of Photography, 27:2, 111-129. Yet oddly, Sommer’s pictures were immensely popular with the tourist who, surmises Desrochers, may have responded to their ‘scientific aesthetic’.
By comparison, Auguste Lesouëf‘s (1829-1906) hand-colored photographs in an album of twelve entitled Pompeii of 1880, published as souvenirs for tourists who visited the excavations, are a coloured confection. Even though it is shot at closer range and only slightly to the left of Sommer’s view of the Entrata della casa del balcone, its tight cropping reverts it to the ‘picturesque’, a composition organised around an antique artifact, the cupid-like figure holding forth a conch shell over a basin.
The preface to antiquarian Thomas H. Dyer‘s Pompeii, its History, Buildings and Antiquities (1867) also reverts to an emphasis the artistic:
In works like the present the usual practice is reversed – the letter-press is made subservient to the illustrations; and these, especially when they consist of photographs, must be left to the selection of artists. Hence, views may sometimes be chosen for their pictorial effect rather than their fitness to illustrate the subject in hand. Nevertheless, from the necessary truthfulness of photographic pictures, it is hoped that the present volume may, with the aid of some engravings, convey a good general idea of Pompeii.
Photography made a practical companion to archaeology at a time when both were being invented and refined, their uses and disciplines being in the process of being defined.
A figurative relation has often been drawn between the plaster casts of Fiorelli and photography to propose that both ‘freeze’ samples of time and preserve the past for inspection and analysis. Such an analogy, however attractive, is of course simplistic, as to understand either as ‘a moment’ requires interpretation, an understanding that they collapse and telescope time, and eras.
The poses that predominate amongst the plaster casts of the deceased have been described as ‘life-like’, and indeed they are since death on exposure to temperatures, indoors and outdoors, in the pyroclastic flow of c.300ºC, was almost instant according to Mastrolorenzo, Petrone, Pappalardo and Guarino in their 2010 paper Lethal Thermal Impact at Periphery of Pyroclastic Surges: Evidences at Pompeii. That research moreover, reveals that some of the figures’ postures, previously understood to be self-protective, are due to cadaveric spasm, particularly hyperflexion of hands, feet and toes (flexor reflex) from the heat-shock. Likewise, Sommer’s photographs show only a stage of excavation and as the ‘freezing’ process is also one of carefully positioning the camera, it is a selective sampling of the archaeological visual data, literally an abstraction.
To take the analogy further is to illuminate another aspect of photography that is shared with the three-dimensional plaster cast; the conventional photograph provides us with the surface appearance of a things, its outer shell, its flayed skin. Rosalind Krauss in “Tracing Nadar” (October, Vol. 5, Summer, 1978), quotes novelist Barbey d’Aurevilly (1808–1889) on Honoré de Balzac (1789–1850) saying that he “has made description a skin disease of the realists” and consequently that he was afraid of the camera because photography should, in this sense, be a kind of invisible peeling of the soul. Krauss continues: “For the early 19th century, the trace was not simply an effigy, a fetish, a layer that has been magically peeled off a material object and deposited elsewhere. It was that material object become intelligible. The activity of the trace was understood as the manifest presence of meaning.”
That ‘the trace [is] the manifest presence of meaning’ holds true after the recent development of the computer-assisted three-dimensional scan; x-ray tomography, an advance in photography, that has enabled a scientific examination of the structures of the skeletons that remain inside the Pompeii plasters that breaks through the ‘shell’, thus thawing the information locked inside.
Allan McCollum, in his 1991 The Dog From Pompei, with multiples of the original cast in fibre-glass-reinforced Hydrocal, deliquesces and reanimates the writhing figure, with “delineations…of an almost unlimited variety” as the potential photographic renderings of the bust of Patroclus are evoked by Henry Fox Talbot.