In the mid 19th century, systematic archaeological excavations of Pompeii were just starting to get underway. The ancient city that was buried in volcanic ash wasn’t rediscovered until 1740, and subsequent excavations were somewhat haphazard. That was, until after the Italian unification in the 1860s, when influential archaeologist Giuseppe Fiorelli took control as director of excavations.

During this time, brothers Fausto and Felice Niccolini were methodically documenting what life in Pompeii had been like through maps and images of buildings, frescos, and recovered objects in their book, The Houses and Monuments of Pompeii. Next month, the color plates from their study of the ancient city will be available as an extra-large coffee table book.

The Niccolini brothers’ massive undertaking was published in several installments between 1854 and 1896, when it was finally completed by their nephew after both their deaths. It contained more than 400 color lithographs (then a new technology) of artwork and utensils uncovered in the excavations. They also illustrated scenes of what they thought the city looked like in its prime, based on their research. This, for instance, is how they imagined the view from the Pompeii Forum toward Vesuvius:

Murals don’t typically last thousands of years, but the volcanic ash of Vesuvius preserved many painted walls in Pompeii, allowing researchers to trace the different eras of Roman wall painting. This Third Style (27 BCE to 14 CE) painting depicting Zeus has been destroyed since the Niccolini brothers recorded its image.

The house that contains this mosaic is called Casa del Poeta Tragico, after the image of actors rehearsing a play about satyrs. The border is still located in its original place:

This wallpaper-like decoration is in the Fourth Style. It's located in the Villa di Arianna in the town of Stabia.

This is a compilation of different mosaic patterns from multiple different locations around Pompeii:

The giant coffee table book contains many more of the Niccolinis' color plates, as well as essays about the historical context of their work. The brothers' work “offered unprecedented access to Pompeii’s private residences,” according to Taschen. “They revealed the astonishing painted wall decorations that adorned these long-buried abodes, their intricate works of art, and the practical utensils of everyday use, conjuring up a vivid picture of each house as a real, domestic space. In total, the plates illustrated more than 1000 items, each extensively specified and located for the first time, making the publication a major reference in Pompeii research.”

The Houses and Monuments of Pompeii will be available from Taschen in November.

All images courtesy Taschen

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