Painting the invisible, for the participants not the beholders: the Tomb of the Diver

The scientific exploration of Pompeii began in 1748; the Bourbon court which financed the excavations was mainly motivated by the likelihood of enriching the royal collections with sculptures and frescoes, torn from their original context and brought to Naples. The impact on European culture at the time of the discoveries at the Vesuvian sites can hardly be understated – from art and architecture to design and fashion. But the ancient fresco which, as a work on its own, has had the most profound impact on modern and contemporary culture is not from Pompeii, but from another site in Campania, namely Paestum, where it was discovered on 3 June 1968, 220 years after excavations in Pompeii had commenced1.

The Tomb of the Diver, painted roof slab, in travertine – Paestum, Loc. Tempa del Prete (Sa), 480 a.C.
Archaeological Park of Paestum and Velia. Photographic cabinet/Photo by Francesco Valletta e Giovanni Grippo


The slab that covers the Tomb of the Diver, which dates to the first quarter of the 5th century BC, has, since its discovery, attracted the attention not only of archaeologists, but also of artists, writers and philosophers. A central theme in the debate that has developed around the Diver ever since that time concerns its artistic quality, an aspect the contemporary dimension of which cannot be overlooked, given the fact that the concept of ‘art’ (and ‘artistic quality’) is profoundly linked to modernity.
What is striking is the enthusiasm of contemporary artists and writers on the one hand and the rather reserved, sometimes explicitly negative, judgements by Classical archaeologists on the other, although there are, of course, some exceptions. The first editor of the tomb, Mario Napoli, considered the paintings a masterwork of the lost tradition of Classical Greek painting2. However, his view provoked sharp criticism, among others by such renowned scholars as Ranuccio Bianchi Bandinelli3. At the same time, non-experts remained highly impressed by the artistic quality of the paintings, and today the Tomb of the Diver can be considered the single ancient painting that has had the deepest impact on modern visual culture, in spite of its rather late discovery if compared to Pompeian wall-painting4.
Some examples. A few years after the discovery of the tomb, the Italian noble prize Eugenio Montale writes a poem entitled Il Tuffatore (“The Diver”)5. A contemporary installation by the same title was made by the Italian artist Carlo Alfano for the museum of Paestum, where it still can be seen6. And as recently as 2012, the French philosopher and film maker Claude Lanzman writes in the introduction of La Tombe du divin plongeur:

Je suis allé pour la première fois à Paestum dans les années cinquante. Avec Simone de Beauvoir et Sartre, nous passâmes là presque un jour entier, du dur soleil de midi à la nuit tombante, en laissant aux colonnes doriques le temps de blanchir jusqu’à l’os. (…) C’est bien plus tard, puisqu’elle n’a été découverte qu’en 1968, que j’ai vu pour la première fois, sans pouvoir m’en arracher, la tombe du divin plongeur. Souvent j’étais resté trop longtemps dans l’enceinte des temples, arrivant au musée après la fermeture, ou, d’autres fois, le trouvant en travaux, qui pouvaient durer des semaines ou des mois. Jamais je n’aurais imaginé être touché en plein cœur, tremblant et bouleversé au tréfonds de moi-même, comme je le fus le jour où il m’apparut, arc parfait, semblant plonger sans fin sans l’espace entre la vie et la mort.7

In Metabolism: The Exhibition of the Unseen, Melbourne-based artist, writer and cultural heritage specialist Paul Carter, while emphasizing the fact that the paintings were not made for being seen (and asking a series of curatorial questions stemming from this fact), insists on the Diver being a genuine work of art that by its very nature challenges the policies of categorizing and exposing art in the present.
On the other hand, some examples of what Classical scholarship has made of the paintings. Bianchi Bandinelli claimed that the paintings revealed “nothing new” on ancient Greek painting, and that they are not even “real Greek painting, but local, colonial, or however one wants to put it, paintings of good, though not exceptional, repertoire painting (sic)”8.
Equally, in her 1994 manual on ancient Greek painting, Ingeborg Scheibler emphasizes the “artisanal mediocrity” of the paintings from the Tomb of the Diver. She believes that the paintings, that in her eyes are typical products of a “marginal area” (Randgebiet), would have appeared “quite modest next to the works of Cimon of Cleonae or Polygnotus of Thasos, who was active one generation later”9. The reason is obviously that Cimon of Cleonae is said to have invented “oblique views on human figures” (Pliny, N.H. XXXV 34), i.e. some sort of perspective of the human body, while the Diver is an outline drawing showing all the figures in profile.
Now, who is right? Apart from the fact that judging art is always subjective, I believe that the non-experts have grasped something that the majority of Classical scholars have failed to notice, namely the need of going beyond the traditional categories and methods of Classical art history to understand the paintings.
This becomes evident from Scheibler’s statement. She imagines the tomb paintings in some sort of virtual gallery or collection, hanged on a wall next to a painting by Cimon of Cleonae. Such a virtual collection is essential for the unfolding of the connoisseurship of scholars like Scheibler and Bianchi Bandinelli, as it provides the space of reference for all art historical knowledge of this kind. Art history in its traditional form can work only if there is a defined corpus of works—defined in terms of techniques, styles, regions, and, of course, chronology. Only if this is the case, it makes sense to talk about Classical Greek painting, Italian Renaissance painting, French Impressionists and so forth.
Now, the problem is not that the collection in which Scheibler looks at the Tomb of the Diver next to a work by Cimon does not physically exist. There is no such thing as a museum collection containing the entire canon of the French impressionists, and yet it does have sense to compare their works, as they were part of a common visual tradition. What might be a problem is that we have absolutely no idea of how Cimon’s paintings looked, as not a single one is conserved, not even in copies. The real problem, however, in the case of the Diver, is the impossibility to include it in any art historical collection or canon, even if it were only imaginary or virtual. As the paintings in the Tomb of the Diver were invisible after the closing of the tomb, they were not accessible for the gaze of any beholder. Technical analysis shows that the paintings were made on the spot and for the occasion of the funerary; after the funerary ritual, they disappeared forever.
It certainly is problematic to include an image that was not made for being seen in a virtual collection of art works and to compare it with other paintings as if it were hanged on a museum wall. The very notion of the art work, as it is intended in the Western tradition, falls apart vis-à-vis an image that is not made for being seen. Judging such an image as if it were part of an accessible, albeit imaginary or virtual, collection of exposed and comparable works, means ignoring one of the most important features of the painting: its being invisible.
This is not a mere detail, but a fact that should be considered crucial in the contextualization of the Tomb of the Diver. One simply cannot contextualize this work in a tradition characterized by the same accessibility and visibility of, let’s say, eighteenth-century Impressionism10. This would be as if one would attempt to write a history of Classical literature by comparing fragments from Euripides’ tragedies with the so-called Orphic gold tablets found in ancient tombs. Just like the paintings from the Tomb of the Diver were not made for being seen, these texts were not written to be read. They contain prayers and indications for the journey of the souls of the dead to the blessed lands of Persephone and Dionysus. They usually are written in hexameters, and I personally find them highly poetic. Here is an example from Thurii in southern Italy, dating to the early fourth century BC:

I come pure from the pure, Queen of the Chthonian Ones,
Eucles, Euboleus and the other immortal gods.
For I also claim to be of your happy race.
But Moira overcame me and the other immortal gods
and the star- flinger with lightning.
I have flown out of the heavy, difficult circle,
I have approached the longed-f or crown with swift feet,
I have sunk beneath the breast of the Lady, the Chthonian Queen,
I have approached the longed-f or crown with swift feet.
“Happy and blessed, you will be a god instead of a mortal.”
A kid I fell into milk.

Such texts should not be, and usually are not, treated as literary texts in the traditional sense, but as magical texts. Magical texts are not written for being read and becoming part of a canon; instead, they are considered having a life of their own, independently from the reader; their function consists in manipulating the spiritual and the supernatural, that is the souls of the dead, the divinities of the underworld and so forth; they do not aim at impressing any ancient or modern connoisseurs.
The magical texts thus have much in common with the paintings from the Tomb of the Diver: invisibility/unreadability and eschatology, i.e. being linked to the afterworld. I do not want to go into detail regarding the religious, and possibly mysterical, background of the tomb. However, it is beyond doubt that the paintings were made for the funerary context, whatever specific religious background they had.
There are other magical images that could be compared to the invisible tomb paintings from Paestum, for example the Archaic xoana known through the written sources. As Jean-Pierre Vernant11, (has stressed, they belong to a category of objects that according to modern standards were not images, as they “have not crossed the threshold beyond which one has the right to speak of images in the strict sense.” Vernant emphasizes three aspects: (1) the suppression of authorship (many xoana are said not having been made by men, but fallen from the sky, swept to the strand, and so forth); (2) the simplicity of their form and style; and (3) the fact that they are not made for being seen, except for certain groups of people in certain moments of ritual activities. With regard to this last point, Vernant states:

L’idole n’est pas faite pour être vue. La regarder, c’est devenir fou. Aussi est-elle souvent enfermée dans un coffret, gardée dans une demeure interdite au public. Cependant, sans être visible comme doit l’être une image, l’idole n’est pas pour autant invisible à la façon du dieu qu’on ne saurait regarder en face. Elle est prise dans le jeu du cacher-montrer. Tantôt dissimulé, tantôt découvert, le xoanon oscille entre les deux pôles du “ maintenu secret” et du “manifesté au public”. La “vision” de l’image se produit chaque fois par rapport à un “caché” préalable qui lui donne sa signification véritable en lui conférant le caractère d’un privilège réservé à certaines personnes, à certains moments, dans certaines conditions.12

Vernant argues that in ancient Greece the notion of the image changed from that of a magical object to that of a representation of other objects only toward the late fifth century BC.
It seems to me that his insight has not had much impact on the field of Classical art history in particular. Yet I believe that finds such as the Tomb of the Diver require an approach that accounts for the magic nature of these works and in particular of the fact that they were not visible in the way in which images are visible today.
In this context, I would like to stress two aspects: the role of the painters/artists and that of the observers.

Painters of the invisible
It probably is no mere coincidence that paintings like the ones from the Tomb of the Diver bear no artists’ signatures. This holds true also for later tombs from fourth century BC, when figurate scenes become common in frescoed tombs at Paestum. There is only one case where a name has been read on a slab: PLASOS (tomb Gaudo 1/1972). However, it is open to debate whether this is the name of the owner of the tomb or of the painter13. At the same time, some vase painters based in Paestum, namely Assteas and Python, signed their works, as did many Athenian vase painters of the late sixth and fifth centuries BC.
As I have argued in the past, the painters who made the Tomb of the Diver were probably based in Paestum, as there is a tradition of frescoed tombs, though usually without figurate elements. This tradition starts in the late sixth century BC (Tomb of the Palmettas: note the palmettas on the lid, exactly in the same position as in the Tomb of the Diver) and continues into the early fourth century BC. Apparently, the Tomb of the Diver stands in a local tradition; it is not an isolated result of some Etruscan or Italic presence in the city, as has been argued in the past. However, since the numbers of frescoed tombs remain extremely low in this period (not more than 15 out of more than five-hundred), it is not likely that they were made by workshops specialized in tomb paintings. The demand for frescoed tombs was too low for specialized workshops living off the production of such tombs alone. Thus, we have a paradox here: on the one hand, the tomb painters appear to have been based in Paestum, on the other hand, they could not live off that activity. The solution I suggest to this problem is that the painters were working in other fields that were more profitable and only occasionally made tomb paintings. The main activities of the painters were probably the decoration of temples, and maybe also of elite houses. The materials were the same for both temples and tombs: in both cases, we find travertine covered with painted stucco. That there was some kind of technical transfer from the so-called “structural style” as used for temples and houses to tomb paintings in Paestum has been hypothesized by Angela Pontrandolfo and Marina Cipriani in the past14. Now, new archaeometric analysis confirms this. Analysis carried out by the Associazionione Italiana di Archeometria and under the direction of Carmine Lubritto has shown that the stucco of the older tombs resembles that of the so-called Basilica, that is the oldest of the three great temples of Paestum, dated to around 560/20 BC. The stucco of the later tombs resembles that from the so-called temple of Neptune (around 460 BC). As it appears, temple decoration and tomb painting developed in a similar direction. This makes it quite plausible that the workshops operating in the two fields were closely related or even identical. We therefore can suppose that the painters were among the highly specialized craftsmen working in the field of temple architecture15. We know very little about their living conditions and background except what can be indirectly deduced from the study of architectural remains. Judging from the available evidence, for example the way in which the angular conflict was resolved, it appears that they traveled and were connected by networks that made it possible to share technical and artistic innovations over large areas. Please keep this in mind for the conclusions: Greek painting was part of expert knowledge shared through artists’ networks; it was not a common visual experience for the audience, who were basically landholders and farmers living in Paestum. It is unlikely that any citizen of Paestum had ever seen a painting of Cimon of Cleonae, and only few had ever come to places in the motherland such as Olympia or Delphi.

No beholders, only participants
This gets me to my second point: the experience of the beholders. “Participants” actually would be more appropriate a term than “beholders” in this case, as the paintings were visible only in the context of ritual performances. As a matter of fact, they were part of the ritual, just like the prayers and songs performed during the funerary ceremony. This means that they had no public: Those who looked at them, were themselves part of the performance. Prior to its discovery by modern archaeologists, there were no beholders of the Tomb of the Diver, only participants. This is another reason why it is so problematic to contemplate the paintings, although only with our own imagination or virtually, in some kind of ideal gallery or collection of Classical painting. Rather than the traditional methods of art history such as style and iconography, what is needed here is an anthropology of painting as part of ritual activities and as “magic” (in the religious sense).
In this, the Tomb of the Diver may reveal a much broader characteristic of ancient painting. The tomb represents, it is true, an extreme case. However, its invisibility sheds light also on paintings in non-funerary contexts where access and visibility were limited to certain groups and moments in time. I am referring here to the paintings in ancient temples, such as the temple of Apollo in Delphi, that was painted by Polygnotus (Pliny XXXV 35). Another example, though not of painting in the strict sense, would be the Parthenon frieze by Phidias, who is said to have been originally a painter, as Pliny stresses (XXXV 34). As known, the frieze was in a position where it was hardly visible.
What is more, in a period when the religious function of the temple was still central and temples had not yet become some kind of nostalgic museums as in the times of Pausanias, the number of people who could see the “visible” paintings inside ancient temples was certainly very limited. Those who looked at the paintings did so first and foremost as pilgrims and participants of ritual activities, not as museum visitors or connoisseurs. There was, so to speak, no place for the perspective of an art critic like Scheibler. This changed in the Hellenistic and Imperial periods, i.e. considerably later than the tomb from Paestum 16. For the sixth and fifth centuries BC, no clear distinct line can be drawn between the Tomb of the Diver and wall paintings in temples: in most, if not all, of these cases, visibility and access were limited. The only exceptions I can think of are historical paintings as they could be seen in the Stoa Poikile on the Agora of Athens from the time of Polygnotus onward.
We have a description of the way art was perceived in rituals thanks to Euripides’ Ion, where the chorus of maidens accompanying Creusa to Delphi comment on the images they see in the sanctuary. The state of excitement and emotional involvement of the young women when recognizing their favored heroes and goddesses (above all, “my goddess Athena”: Ion 230), gives an idea of the affectivity with which ancient visitors looked at art in sanctuaries. At the same time, it is striking that “artistic period and style is of no concern to these viewers, only clarity and recognition”.17
In the remainder of my paper, I would like to argue that a trace of the magical and seemingly primitive, unartistic, image, which in the modern imagination tends to be identified with the irrational and non-Classical, can be found at the very centre and origin of Classical art history, namely in Pliny’s Natural History. Pliny actually acknowledges the magical nature of painting, though not explicitly. However, his text ultimately confirms the shortcomings of the categories and methods of Classical art history with regard to ancient painting. This becomes particularly evident in two passages of book XXXV of the Natural History, one concerning chronology, the other aesthetics.
In XXXV 34, Pliny mentions a paradox in the history of Greek painting, although he fails to provide a coherent explanation for it. In his enumeration of ancient painters (in other words: in his exposition of the history of Greek painting, for art history is since then the history of painters and commissioners18) he complains that “in this field [of painting], the ordinary exactness of the Greeks has been somewhat inconsistent, in placing the painters so many Olympiads after the sculptors and toreutic artists, and the very first of them as late as the ninetieth Olympiad” (non constat sibi in hac parte graecorum diligentia multas post olympiadas celebrando pictores quam statuarios ac toreutas, primumque olympiade lxxxx). He then goes on listing some painters of whom it was known that they had lived considerably earlier than the ninetieth Olympiad, that is earlier than 420/416 BC. Pliny found this startling; however, note that the ninetieth Olympiad is around the time in which Vernant 19 places the transition from the image as a magical object (présentification de l’invisible) to the image as a representation, made to impress the observer by the way it represents reality (imitation de l’apparence). I wonder whether the relatively late beginning of the history of Greek painting in Pliny’s sources somehow reflects the ineptness of sixth and fifth century BC painting of being subjected to the logic of art history on the grounds of the magical nature of the image that still prevailed in those times. The Greek tradition to which Pliny refers apparently had excluded the painters of the sixth and fifth centuries BC from the history of painting as a techne (“technique”) or art in the narrow sense, and this might be more than a coincidence.
Painting continued to exceed the concepts of art history, intended as the history of the perfection of techniques and styles by famous painters, even after its inclusion (or should we say: fall?) into the horizon of esthetics and techne. Pliny deconstructs the scheme of the perfection of painting that he himself had elaborated and that consists in a climax to ever more refined techniques apt to create highly realistic representations of real world objects. The story of Zeuxis painting grapes and birds flying to the painting and trying to pick them is emblematic of the exaltation of technical virtuosity, perspective and realism. And yet, when it comes to the highest, Pliny falls back to an almost magical conception of painting where less is more and where instead of refined techniques we find rapid execution. I am referring here to the story of Apelles and Protogenes engaging in some kind of play-contest. Apelles, “who surpassed all other painters who preceded or succeeded him”, arrives to visit his colleague but does not find him in his studio; he draws a single, very fine outline on a large blank panel standing in the studio; Protogenes when coming back recognizes Apelles’ hand (here you have the magical power of painting: objects act as/substitute persons), and draws an outline that is still finer, ordering his servant (a slave woman, that is, in the eyes of the ancient Greeks, someone who has no view and understanding of her own) to show it to Apelles. Apelles, when coming back, draws an even finer outline; Protogenes, when seeing it, recognizes his defeat (Pliny XXXV 36).
About three-hundred years later, Pliny saw the panel at Caesar’s Palace on the Palatine in Rome:

Upon its vast surface it contained nothing whatever except the three outlines, so remarkably fine as to escape the sight: among the most elaborate works of numerous other artists it had all the appearance of a blank space; and yet by that very fact it attracted the notice of every one, and was held in higher estimation than any other painting there.

It is not known whether next to it a work by Cimon of Cleonae was hung. What we do know, thanks to Pliny, is that this “blank space” with three outlines, did not appear “modest” at all, but was highly admired20. The conclusion is, if you hang the Diver in your imaginary or virtual gallery, do not be afraid to give it a place among its masterworks.


Gabriel Zuchtriegel is the General Director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii



1 For the state of the art concerns the archaeological excavations of the Tomb of the Diver cf. A. Meriani, G. Zuchtriegel (eds), La Tomba del Tuffatore. Rito, arte e poesia a Paestum e nel Mediterraneo d’epoca tardo-arcaica, Proceedings of the Internationl Conference (Paestum, 4–6 October 2018), (Pisa: Edizioni ETS, 2021).

2 M. Napoli, La Tomba del Tuffatore. La scoperta della grande pittura greca (Bari: De Donato Editore, 1970).

3 R. Bianchi Bandinelli, 1970-71.

4 A. Pontrandolfo, M. Scafuro (eds), Dialoghi sull’Archeologia della Magna Grecia e del Mediterraneo, Proceedings of the I Internationl Conference of Study (Paestum, 7–9 September 2016), (Paestum: 2017).

5 Eugenio Montale, Diario del ’71 e del ’72 (Mondadori, 1973).

6 Perspective Times, 1970-72.

7 I went to Paestum for the first time in the fifties. With Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre, we spent almost a whole day there, from blazing midday until nightfall, giving the Doric columns time to whiten to the bone. […] Only many years later, since it was only discovered in 1968, I saw for the first time, without being able to detach from it, the Tomb of the Divine Diver. Often, I had stayed too long within the walls of the temples, when I arrived at the museum after closing, or, at other times, finding it under maintenance, which could last weeks or months. Never, I would have imagined being struck in the heart, trembling and astonished in the depths of the soul, as I was the day he appeared to me, with a perfect arc, while it seems to dive without end, without space between life and death.” (Translator’s Note: our translation)

8 “Two misunderstandings need to be clarified: a) the paintings in the Tomb of the Diver are undoubtedly a precious find, but they do not reveal anything novel about Greek painting that was not already known; b) they are not an example of real Greek painting, but of local, ‘colonial’ or provincial art – call it what you will – of good (but not exceptional) painting and repertoire. The inaccuracy of considering this find a ‘revelation’ derives from two erroneous starting points, from which Mario Napoli takes his cue…”. (R. Bianchi Bandinelli op. cit., p. 138) (Translator’s Note: our translation)

9 Ingeborg Scheibler, Griechische Malerei der Antike (München: C.H. Beck, 1994), p. 89: “As sensational as this find may be, it is important to bear in mind that the art here is of average craftsmanship. It would probably look quite modest next to works by artists such as Kimon of Kleonai or Polygnotus of Thasos, who were active a generation later, as the Paestum tomb dates to between the creative periods of these two artists.”  See also Robert 1999, pp. 234–35, who sustains that “both the paintings in the Tomb of the Diver and the vases painted by contemporary ceramists can be automatically linked to handicraft production.” (Translator’s Note: our translation)

10 A. Rouveret, 1989.

11 Jean-Pierre Vernant, Myth and Society in Ancient Greece (Zone Books, 1988), pp. 342–43.

12  “The idol is not meant to be seen. If you look at it, you go crazy. As a result, it is often enclosed in a casket, kept in a place off limits to the public. However, without being visible as an image must be, the idol is not visible as a god who cannot be looked at, but is caught in the game of hiding by showing himself. As concealed as it is discovered, the xoanon oscillates between the two poles of the ‘kept secret’ and the ‘manifested to the public’. The ‘vision’ of the image is revealed each time in relation to a ‘hidden’ precedent that gives it its true meaning, giving it the character of a privilege reserved for some, at certain times, under certain conditions. (Translator’s Note: our translation)

13 Angela Pontrandolfo, Agnès Rouveret, Le tombe dipinte di Paestum (1992), pp. 377–80. The tomb is dated to 370/60 BC and belonged to a male individual.

14 A. Pontrandolfo 1987; M. Cipriani, A. Pontrandolfo, 2010.

15 G. Zuchtriegel ,2016.

16 A. Rouveret, 1989 op. cit.; R. Robert, 1999.

17 M. Emerson, Greek Sanctuaries and Temple Architecture: An Introduction (2nd edition) (Bloomsbury: 2018), p. 254.

18 See on this A. Rouveret, 1987.

19 Vernant, 1988, op. cit., pp. 340–41.

20 In taking this anecdote as a “metaphor” for the conceptualisation of painting as a “system of signs” within a “linear history of Greek Painting”, Renaud Robert (1999 op. cit., p. 240) seems to lose sight of the subversive nature of the passage with regard to chronological, stylistic, and technical linearity.