At the School of Pompeii

My involvement in Elena Mazzi’s project The School of Pompeii originates from the research carried out in my PhD thesis, which investigated the relationships between cultural heritage, contemporary knowledge production and sustainable growth of local communities, and from its application in Pompeii, subject and object of artistic research since its rediscovery in the 18th century.

As part of Creative Europe 2018, Artists in Architecture. Reactivating Modern European Houses, Mazzi’s project had been the winning proposal in the EACEA 32/2017 and EACEA 35/2017 75 call for proposals a few weeks previously. Thanks to the partnership that set up this project – the BOZAR Museum in Brussels, the Mies van der Rohe Foundation in Barcelona and the University of Naples Federico II — I was involved in finalizing the cooperation agreement signed in May 2019 between the Faculty of Architecture of the University of Naples Federico II and the Pompeii Archaeological Park. Scientific coordination was by Professor Maria Rita Pinto of the Faculty of Architecture and Park director Massimo Osanna, while Professor Serena Viola was joint head and contact person with me for the agreement.

The aim of the call for proposals was to make the residences of several European artists and intellectuals newly “productive”, responding to the objectives of tracing the possible connections that would define a common European culture and to help demonstrate the role of artistic practices in raising awareness of critical thinking, an indispensable prerequisite for sustainable development.

Mazzi’s project was to be sited in the Casina Fiorelli, a building constructed on an existing structure within the perimeter of the ancient city and once home to Giuseppe Fiorelli, the Superintendent of Pompeii in the second half of the nineteenth century, and a temporary base for archaeologists and travellers arriving from all over the western world during that period.

Casina Fiorelli is an important example of a modern-day artist’s house, or in this instance an intellectual’s house, since Giuseppe Fiorelli was one of the founders of stratigraphic archaeology, which led to the division of the ancient city into regiones and insulae and the new concept of Pompeii as a “museum”, open to visitors and scholars; he also invented the technique of plaster casting which allowed the people and animals who lived in Pompeii prior to the eruption in 79 AD to be brought to light in their original physical form. The house is modeled on the Pompeiian Casa del Poeta Tragico (House of the Tragic Poet), the only one of its kind on the site, and thus constitutes a forerunner of subsequent versions of artists’ homes, for which it is an archetype. But since 1994, the building has also been home to the Pompeii Archaeological Park’s Laboratory of Applied Research, an interdisciplinary research center engaged in the monitoring, conservation and analysis of some 3,500 finds in mineral, petrological, botanical, paleontological, zoological and anthropological form, including textiles and archaeological woods: these items are not only extremely fragile but — due to the dynamics and the chemical and physical effects of the volcanic eruption on Pompeii’s organic matter, which the eruption itself simultaneously damaged and preserved in altered form — also the only sources in the world to document organic life of the ancient world with such immediacy.

This was the background facing Elena Mazzi, selected from a total of 362 artists from around the world who  had responded to the call for proposals, including seventy-five relating to Casina Fiorelli. According to the minutes of meetings I have read, the panel of judges was particularly interested by one issue, a key element of Mazzi’s project: the relationships between people and their living and working environment, explored with the truly anthropological approach that distinguishes Mazzi’s work as she seeks identity, sensitivity, interests, behaviors that are hidden, erased, marginal or otherwise not socially visible and therefore historically less documented than others.

And it is precisely this search for Pompeii’s inhabitants and their relations with their living and working environment that Mazzi declared she wanted to focus on during her residency in Pompeii. Her attention, however, would not be on the ancient inhabitants — the shapes of their bodies, petrified by Fiorelli’s casts, for example, or their faces, reconstructed at Casina Fiorelli using experimental and increasingly advanced techniques. Instead, her attention would be on the contemporary inhabitants and workers of the site and, more specifically, those who in the near past had experienced the ancient city on a daily basis, helping not only to pass on its “archaeological matter” to the future but also to keep alive the relationship (affective,”caring”, investigative) with it, which is the subject of the activity carried out precisely at the Casina Fiorelli Laboratory.

The method employed to document and illustrate this relationship was the tableau vivant, a scenographic composition combining visual arts and theatrical performance, reminiscent of the nineteenth-century paintings of Pompeii with characters depicted in ancient dress and placed in scenes of everyday life. By means of a portrait, at first sight melancholic, of the “old” workers, who Mazzi had traced and contacted, the outcome was actually the hypothesis of a School of Pompeii and how this was still functioning today, albeit with the countless differences of an age marked by the radical transformation of the methods and the very concept of work, in both organizational and technological terms.

Thinking about my collaboration with the artist, the aspect which seems to me particularly significant, and I’d like to share here, is that of having contributed to a reflection on the questions — essentially timeless and over and above any division by discipline — associated with the practice of conservation and care, be it of heritage, project or representation. By bringing back to the site several colleagues who no longer work here, actors playing themselves for a day, Mazzi presented them with their past work and, more or less involuntarily, brought about a moving and unexpected encounter with the new generations and incarnations of workers, including myself.

Mazzi not only responded to the aim of the Creative Europe 2018 project, and thus to its underlying exploration of the relations between historical and contemporary cultural heritage. She also demonstrated, albeit in a small way, how it may be possible to relate critically – and following personal sensitivity – to a heritage that is at one and the same time thousands of years old and a global tourist attraction, hence extraordinarily famous, as is Pompeii. In my own experience of her practice, even more than a work of contemporary art, the School of Pompeii hypothesized by Mazzi was an apparatus of unheard stories and an instrument for measuring what changes and what stays the same. She brought old and new inhabitants back into contact against the background of the archaeological matters of their professional lives and the lengthy period of the ancient city that survives within the much shorter time of a human life and the actions associated with daily work. And, perhaps because of this, she chose to tell one of the many little-known stories that could be told of Pompeii. One which, among many others, is partly my story too.


Anna Onesti is Architect Officer, Head of the Cultural Heritage Protection Area, Head of the Office for the Protection of Landscape Heritage at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii