Rediscovering Pompeii digitally

Pompeian wall paintings as a source of inspiration for neo-classical domestic interior decorations; a digital approach to art history.

The archaeological site of Pompeii provides us with a vivid picture of society and daily life in the year AD 79, when Mount Vesuvius erupted. The ancient town was rediscovered in 1748, and excavations started shortly after. Subsequently most impressive wall paintings were unearthed, which in turn inspired neo-classical arts and culture up to the twentieth century.

Pompeii-inspired wall decorations proliferated in domestic interiors, ranging from modest apartments to sumptuous palaces. In such new settings Pompeian wall paintings were copied and imitated, in part or in their entirety. To date numerous individual cases have been studied, whereas a synthetic study has never been attempted. Contemporary digital technologies enable us at last to explore this widespread cultural phenomenon.

Digital art history is concerned with the collecting and archiving, the sharing and connecting, and the analyzing and visualizing of data. For this project, this means that I will not only gather information about the neo-classical interior decorations inspired by Pompeian wall paintings, but also about the ancient wall paintings themselves, their reproductions in various media, their visitors and excavators, to name but a few facets.

It is my aim to develop, test and compare automated methods (such as crowdsourcing) to generate real world data, and to store this in a way that allows for easy data exchange and access (for example by means of the Semantic Web and Linked (Open) Data Cloud). I will use modern data analysis and interactive visualization tools to interpret the data and aid our understanding.

These latest tools and techniques, combined with fieldwork and literature, will be used to examine the impact of the wall paintings excavated at Pompeii on domestic decors originating from the period 1750-1900. I will map the spread of this fashion, and the agents involved. The types of houses and social classes associated with interior decorations inspired by Pompeii will also be taken into account.

Additionally, I will focus on identifying popular iconographic subjects and decorative elements. Studying these aspects may lead to the determination of a chronology. A final consideration will be the relationship between this cultural phenomenon and the reappraisal of the grotteschi in the late eighteenth century, with new publications and artists adopting them across Europe and America.

Fortunately many of the decors inspired by Pompeii are well preserved, and source materials abound. By contrast, Pompeian wall paintings are decaying rapidly because of their exposure to the elements and over 250 years of tourism. Together they form an important part of our heritage that is still little understood.

Spurred by innovations in data science and driven by curiosity, it will now be possible to synthesize the role of Pompeii as an inspiration for interior design in the second half of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

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