From Paris to Pompeii: French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology

From Paris to Pompeii: French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology

From Paris to Pompeii: French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology

From Paris to Pompeii: French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology


In the early nineteenth century, as amateur archaeologists excavated Pompeii, Egypt, Assyria, and the first prehistoric sites, a myth arose of archaeology as a magical science capable of unearthing and reconstructing worlds thought to be irretrievably lost. This timely myth provided an urgent antidote to the French anxiety of amnesia that undermined faith in progress, and it armed writers from Chateaubriand and Hugo to Michelet and Renan with the intellectual tools needed to affirm the indestructible character of the past.

From Paris to Pompeii reveals how the nascent science of archaeology lay at the core of the romantic experience of history and shaped the way historians, novelists, artists, and the public at large sought to cope with the relentless change that relegated every new present to history.

In postrevolutionary France, the widespread desire to claim that no being, city, culture, or language was ever definitively erased ran much deeper than mere nostalgic and reactionary impulses. Göran Blix contends that this desire was the cornerstone of the substitution of a weak secular form of immortality for the lost certainties of the Christian afterlife. Taking the iconic city of Pompeii as its central example, and ranging widely across French romantic culture, this book examines the formation of a modern archaeological gaze and analyzes its historical ontology, rhetoric of retrieval, and secular theology of memory, before turning to its broader political implications.


When Théophile Gautier ridiculed the claims of progress in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835–36), he could imagine no better insult than to forecast the future exhumation of Paris by disappointed archaeologists. What if “tomorrow a volcano opened its jaws at Montmartre,” he mused, “and buried Paris under a shroud of ashes and a tomb of lava, just as Vesuvius did earlier at Stabia, Pompeii, and Herculaneum, and in a few thousand years the antiquarians … exhumed the cadaver of the dead city, what monument would remain to testify to [our] splendor?” None, he suggests, only helmets, lighters, and ugly coins, and these archaeologists would be tempted to conclude that “Paris was nothing but a barbarian encampment” (50).

Beyond Gautier’s sarcastic reminder here that art trumps utility as a measure of civilization, the device that he uses—evaluating his own culture from a future perspective—points to a radically new experience of time that arose in the nineteenth century. the age of archaeology had begun: writers and artists were embarking on a massive enterprise of retrieval which involved resurrecting extinct animals, lost languages, buried civilizations, and human prehistory. the past was becoming a new frontier as the age of exploration drew to a close and as an exotic aura of novelty came to color the past. Like the Ancien Régime, the entire past seemed an endangered species in a time of rapid change that underscored the fragile and mortal character of civilizations; the Revolution, and later capitalism, had opened a palpable gap between past and future that broke the chain of tradition and undid the predictive, stabilizing power of historical examples. in this context of turbulent change, much nineteenth-century writing exhibited a tangible anxiety of loss and gave free rein to an urgent archival impulse that reflected the period’s sense of its own mortality much more than the nostalgic desire to emulate golden ages characteristic of revivals.

The mortality of cultures was a key experience of modernity: if history . . .

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