Art Professor Gathers Sketches at Italian Archaeological Sites
By Grant Drumheller, department of art and art history
July 25, 2007
Grant Drumheller, walking amid the ruins in Pompeii, received a 2006-07
CIE Faculty International Travel grant funded by the VPAA.
On June 25, I traveled to Sorrento, Italy, and stayed for four nights.
I had planned to visit the surrounding Roman excavations near Naples.
Initially I had planned to stay in Naples downtown but the news of a
trash strike and the closing of the landfills in the Campania region
changed my plans to Sorrento, a cliff-side vacation town on the Bay of
In hindsight, the trash problem was not as evident as I had feared.
Nevertheless, Sorrento, while a touristy place, proved a fine base to
explore the local ruins of Herculaneum, Pompeii and Oplontis. My objective
had been to return to some familiar sites (Pompeii, Naples and the National
Museum of Archeology), explore new ones (Paestum, Herculaneum) and generally
gather photos for my own use in future works.
Since I derive “sketch” material from photos, and some drawings,
and much prefer my own source materials to commercial photos, it was
incumbent that I make the journey and do the work myself. Given the brevity
of the trip, I am happy to report that I did succeed in my objectives.
Mainly I am interested in the extant spaces and the way light carves
them out of the archeological sights and how Roman decorative painting
embellished the residences that still stand.
Herculaneum was the revelation on this trip. I did not realize that
the city had been inundated with up to 50 meters of molten magma and
ash that completely negated its existence until it was discovered by
someone drilling for a well (unexpectedly finding empty caverns where
rooms now stood). The sense of how the excavation sits in its enveloping
rock with the contemporary city built above at its edges is quite remarkable.
Italy is the land of restoration, which means half of a museum may be
surprisingly shut to the public or an entire area of an archeological
site may be off limits. This was a reoccurring experience. I found much
of the ancient estate of Oplontis with its paintings still in place roped
off from visitors, the entire floor of Roman wall paintings from Pompeii
normally on view in the Naples National Museum locked to the public as
Since some of the oldest parts of Naples retain the same street plan
and building style as in Roman times, one can sense the compression of
time and the similarities between a site such as Herculaneum and the
historic center of Naples; i.e., cramped, dark and filled with fish shops,
metal “ferramente” and bakeries.
Visiting Naples provided as much inspiration as the ruins themselves.
It is a city that thrives in vital disarray and was a great antidote
to the quiet and the surprisingly somber feel of the ruins. One can’t
escape the sense of violent death that befell the residents of Pompeii
and Herculaneum. It was something I had not anticipated. On June 29,
I left Sorrento and proceeded with the remainder of my trip.
In conclusion, the romance of the ruins is a 19th century trope that
I am not trying to revive. My work is ambiguous in that the images may
not even appear ancient, despite the sources I use. Nevertheless, I wish
that I had seen Rome and the cities that were buried by Vesuvius before
they were stripped bare of the trees, roots and overgrowth that inspired
earlier artists and writers.
While there is an effort to use a more garden-like treatment, especially
in some of the older excavations where mature trees have been fostered,
it is far from the untamed wildness that once prevailed at these places.
My hope is that one day I will experience a freshly discovered archeological
site -“pre restoration” i.e., before the defoliants and archeologists
lay it bare.