In Federico Fellini’s 1972 movie Roma, workers excavating for a new Metro line discover a luxurious Roman villa decorated with beautiful, perfectly preserved wall paintings. Within minutes, the wall paintings start to disintegrate due to contact with outside air. “We have to do something,” cries one of the workers, but alas, it is too late. The paintings disappear, lost forever.
A similarly dramatic scene has unfolded, albeit much more slowly, at Herculaneum. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79, the Roman seaside towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum as well as the surrounding area were engulfed by volcanic material. Herculaneum was buried under layers of volcanic material more than 50 feet deep, remaining undisturbed for over a millennium until it was unearthed in 1709.
Both Herculaneum and Pompeii were the sites of thriving ancient towns as well as luxurious seaside villas that serve as critical evidence for ancient Roman life, culture, and art. In fact, the once-opulent Villa dei Papiri at Herculaneum was the primary model for the Getty Villa.
Excavation and Conservation Issues
Herculaneum began to be formally excavated in 1738, mainly via tunnels in the volcanic tuff (rock made from ash and other debris from an eruption). In the late nineteenth century, open-air excavation began, followed by a more systematic approach from 1927 until 1961 led by archaeologist Amedeo Maiuri.
In decades following, the site’s rapid deterioration and lack of resources for its maintenance had many crying in alarm. Historical images taken during Maiuri’s time at the site—compared with later conditions—clearly illustrate the disturbing rate of deterioration and loss. As at all open-air sites, in fact, exposure to the environment poses major challenges for preservation.
New Approaches to Management and Care
Fortunately, in recent years, new approaches have been taken at Herculaneum to address management, conservation, and maintenance issues. In 2016, Herculaneum became its own archaeological park, Parco Archeologico di Ercolano, independent from the other Vesuvian sites. Since 2017 it has had a dedicated director, Francesco Sirano.
Since 2001 the Herculaneum Conservation Project, part of the Packard Humanities Institute, has been collaborating with Parco Archeologico di Ercolano authorities in a public-private partnership to protect, enhance, and manage this unique place and its relationship to the surrounding area. This team has been on site for over a decade, gaining an intimate understanding of Herculaneum’s significance and fragility.
In 2008, the Getty Conservation Institute began working with the Herculaneum Conservation Project on a scientific investigation of the site.
For these investigations, Conservation Institute scientists used laser speckle interferometry—normally used to test for defects in airplane wings—to detect voids behind plasters and mosaics in buildings. This proved especially helpful for treating upper walls, vaults, and ceilings of building across the site.
Scientists also tested a series of injection grouts (a very liquid mortar) to determine if they would be effective in reattaching the plasters, mosaics, and wall paintings that had become detached from walls and floors.
To investigate flaking paint on figurative scenes that appear in the site’s wall paintings, scientists used reflectance transformation imaging, a noninvasive computing technique that makes it easier to see flaking paint layers.
Conserving Wall Paintings
Based on these scientific investigations, in 2011 the Conservation Institute redirected its work to Herculaneum’s ancient Roman wall paintings, embarking on a focused pilot project with Herculaneum Conservation Project and Parco Archeologico di Ercolano.
“The condition of the wall paintings was of particular concern to us, as these paintings are some of the most beautiful elements at the site and the most vulnerable to deterioration,” says Leslie Rainer, a wall paintings conservator at the Conservation Institute. “Exposure to the environment post-excavation and excavation itself are significant factors in the wall paintings’ deterioration, but some of the earlier restoration and maintenance interventions also caused damage.”
When Maiuri excavated the site, wall paintings were often coated with wax, a practice intended to preserve and re-saturate the paintings. But as the wax deteriorated over time, the wall paintings began to flake and powder—a problem seen throughout Herculaneum, as well as nearby sites.
House of the Bicentenary
The current focus of the pilot project is the study and conservation of the wall paintings and mosaic pavement of the tablinum (the formal reception room) of the House of the Bicentenary, an ancient Roman villa. This project aims to develop ways of working that can be applied to other houses at the site and across the region.
The House of the Bicentenary was excavated in 1938 and is one of the most sumptuous Roman houses at Herculaneum. The decoration of the tablinum is particularly exquisite. The walls are decorated with red, yellow, and black backgrounds embellished with delicate architectural, floral, and figurative elements. These walls include figurative scenes painted in rectangular or round format, imitating moveable paintings. The floor is a mosaic pavement with a rectangular central motif in colored opus sectile, enclosed with a black-and-white braided border.
Because of structural problems, water infiltration, and other issues, the House of the Bicentenary has been closed to the public since the 1980s. The wall paintings have suffered extensive deterioration, including powdering and flaking of paint layers, biological growth, and accumulation of dirt and degraded coatings on the surface from environmental pollution and previous conservation interventions. The mosaic pavement is detached in places, and is missing mosaic pieces.
Implementation of a comprehensive conservation plan for the House developed by Herculaneum Conservation Project and Parco Archeologico di Ercolano, including stabilization of the building and architectural elements, is currently underway. Climate improvement strategies are also being implemented. Environmental monitoring has revealed that in the past, fluctuating temperatures, solar radiation, and relative humidity have adversely affected the wall paintings.
“The House of the Bicentenary is the perfect place to celebrate an international partnership for Herculaneum,” notes Sirano. Located on Herculaneum’s most important street, “its name echoes the centuries of work that are still underway to safeguard this Roman town.” It symbolizes how new forms of support can help secure Herculaneum “as a strong place in our collective imagination and long into the future.”
Once stabilization of the House has been completed, the Getty Conservation Institute will finalize the conservation of the wall paintings and the mosaic pavement in the tablinum—and the House of the Bicentenary may once again welcome visitors. A second phase of environmental monitoring will ensure that the preventive measures have addressed issues that previously affected the house.
The conservation of the tablinum in the House of the Bicentenary is supported through the generosity of the Getty Conservation Institute Council.
Francesco Sirano, director of the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum, discusses the past, present, and future of the heritage site at the Getty Villa on Thursday, June 27. Learn more and get tickets.