How Paestum was discovered

How Paestum was discovered


The temples at Paestum played a major role in the discovery of Greek architecture. In the late Roman Empire, Paestum like most other towns in Italy, declined, and settlement contracted to the highest part of the town around the temple of Athena which was turned into a Christian church and surrounded by buildings. A bishopric was even established at Paestum,  but following Saracen attacks,  settlement was transferred to the new hilltop town of Capaccio, though by the 14th century, this too was abandoned and the whole area became a wilderness.

View of Paestum by Antonio Joli in 1758. It was in remarkably good condition when first discovered – there has been very little restoration of the temples

Miraculously however the temples at Paestum survived and in the 18th century they began to be visited. Naples at this time was at the height of its power and glory, and became a major point on the grand tour. In 1738 the ruins of Herculaneum were discovered and ten years later, Pompeii was also discovered: both became a sensation and an essential part of the grand tour. However people began to realise that there were also no less than three Greek temples at Paestum – but were they really worth visiting? They did not conform to the Vitruvian style at all – the Doric columns lacked bases, their capitals were very crude and they were altogether very austere – perhaps even barbarian? In the 1750s and 60s a great debate arose between the ‘Roman classicists’ and the ‘Greek Revivalists’: indeed Greek revivalism became an aggressive movement of moral fervour and artistic orthodoxy. Eventually the German scholar Wincklemann demonstrated how Greek art worked and the temples at Paestum began to be appreciated.

The temple of Athena, as drawn by Piranesi in 1777. Note the cattle wandering among the ruins – and the little house at the far end, long since disappeared.

In this, a major role was played by the Italian engraver and artist Piranesi. Piranesi was born in Venice in 1720 but in 1740 he came to Rome and began a series of Views of Rome in 135 plates,  followed by a four volume work on the Antiquities of Rome containing 250 plates.  As very much a student of Roman architecture, he naturally at first supported the Roman classicists,  but then the tide turned,  and in 1777, in the last year of his life,  he went to Paestum with his 19-year-old son and produced 20 views of the temples.

Piranesi: Temple of Neptune, looking through the peristyle from the north-west corner, showing the internal colonnades and the Basilica in the distance.

These are often considered to be his greatest artistic achievement, and 15 of his original drawings from which the engravings were made, were acquired by the English architect Sir John Soane, and housed in his very own museum.

Sir John Soane (1753 to 1837) was an architect who became a leader in the Roman classical  movement in England: he became one the leading architects of his time, designing the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery.  He also bought two houses in Lincoln’s Inn Fields which he turned into a fantastical museum which he left to the government which has maintained them ever since.  A recent book Piranesi, Paestum and Soane by John Wilton-Ely has recently been produced to accompany an exhibition of the Piranesi  drawings, and it demonstrates how the appreciation of Piranesi led to the triumph of the Greek revival movement in England.


On to the Borsa, the archaeo-tourism fair that takes place in Paestum every year.

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