Magazine article The Spectator

Rediscovering Paestum

Magazine article The Spectator

Rediscovering Paestum

Article excerpt

Rediscovering Paestum Russell Chamberlin on how the city was left to brigands and buffaloes

Paestum, 40km south of Salerno in southern Italy, is something of an enigma among Italian archaeological sites. It has never been a 'lost city', as is sometimes claimed. It's difficult to lose a city that has three enormous Greek temples towering above a narrow, fertile coastal plain for over 2,000 years. Founded by the Greeks as Poseidonia in the 7th century BC, taken over by the Romans who changed its name, it flourished until well into the 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD. Even as late as the 6th century, local Christians built a church there, using plundered material from the ancient city.

The city did not experience the sudden dramatic fate of Pompeii. It simply died of attrition. A realignment of the imperial roads isolated it; the silting up of the mouths of its rivers created a malarial marsh. The inhabitants retreated to the healthy hills a few miles away and built a new town, Capaccio, leaving Paestum to brigands, buffaloes and mosquitoes.

The 'rediscovery' of Paestum can be dated with some precision to 1750 when an intrepid French architect, Jacques Soufflot, visited the area and subsequently wrote an account in a learned journal published in Lyons. Others cautiously followed: the doyen of archaeologists, Winkelman, in 1758; Piranesi in 1778; Canova in 1779; Goethe in 1787, placing Paestum on the itinerary of the by then established Grand Tour. But it was on the furthermost southern limit of the tour. Well-heeled young milords and the like were content to swagger in Florence or Rome, and the intrepid might even penetrate to Naples, but all beyond was night and fog. It was left to writers and particularly artists to bring the 'lost city' to a wider public and so eventually ensure its preservation.

In July this year a local group, the Fondazione Gian Battista Vico, opened a permanent exhibition on the theme Paestum in the Travels of the Grand Tour. Appropriately, the exhibition is housed in a disused 18th-century monastery, in Capaccio, the hilltop successor to ancient Paestum. Included are documentary materials and a number of superb Greek vases discovered in Paestum. But the bulk of the exhibition consists of graphic works of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In choosing the exhibits the organisers have placed accuracy above artistic content - with one exception: Piranesi's engravings. While recognising that he created 'visions rather than views', it was decided to include him because, 'The images he created in 1778 arc probably those that most remain in collective memory. …

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