Charles of Bourbon, who had recently become king of Naples, authorized Roque Joaquin de Alcubierre, a Spanish engineer who was in charge of the construction of the royal palace in Portici, to use four of the seven hundred workers to go on with the archaeological excavation, after the fortuitous discovery of some ancient artefacts.It was almost by chance that, in 1738, the ancient city of Herculaneum, buried by Vesuvius in 79 AD, was discovered. Ten years later, in 1748, the research focused on Pompeii, and then the following year Stabia.
One year after the first discoveries, scholars began to dispute over the removing of the paintings, a method that would be used until the end of the 19th century, when it was decided to leave the decorations inside the building, and to protect the paintings by adding roofs.
Cutting out portions of frescoed walls was not a simple operation, but a proper technique was soon developed and it rarely caused accidents. Cuttings were made around the portion to be removed. Small wooden planks were inserted inside the cuts and fixed with iron rivets. The wall was then cut from behind and a rigid support, usually a slate slab, was inserted and fixed with a binder. The wooden box was later used as support for the frame, with crystal panes to protect the paintings.
Camillo Paderni was the Keeper of the Herculaneum Museum, set up in the residence of Portici, Palazzo Caramanico, from 1752 to 1781. He was in charge of the decision of stripping the mural paintings. With great care, Paderni also chose the paintings to be permanently damaged, perhaps on account of a misunderstanding, perhaps to prevent them being taken away and fall into the wrong hands. This routine was harshly criticized, both inside and outside Naples.
The paintings to be cut out from the walls were chosen according to the subjects depicted. They consisted of different scenes and tableau, panels, particular accessories, regardless of the position on the wall and of their dimension.
Clearly, the choice fell on the paintings with mythological subjects.
Genre panting, such as the scene with the so-called "Cupid seller", soon became one of the best-known subjects in the collection.
They were "as fluid as thought and as lovely as if they had been crafted by hand of the Graces". This is Winckelmann describing the small female figures with billowing veils, in a letter to the Count of Bruhl (1762). The painted wall fragments were put together, after the detachment from the so-called Villa of Cicero in Pompeii, to form a sort of continuous frieze.
The small figures of Satyrs tightrope walkers have been slightly sketched with quick strokes. They look amazing in their extraordinary vitality.

The images with the priests of Isis have been painted on a white background.

Representation of animals

Still-life painting represented minor features, executed with great technical skills.

"Pastiche" made with similar decorative elements, such as the metal candelabra bearing vegetal motifs, garlands, lotus flowers and little birds resting on garlands.

"Pastiche" made with different fragments, often broken into several parts at the bottom of a wall.

Even larger surfaces were taken away: in 1755 the archaeologists removed the wall belonging to the tablinum of the estate of Iulia Felix – almost five meters long and three meters high.
The impact of these images on the eighteenth-century European artistic milieu was really great, but this is a different story ...
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Photo credits Luigi Spina

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