This essay featuring three important perceptions of the archaeological site in Paestum, Italy, is included in my new book The Modern Salonnière. The 34 other essays in the book feature similar literary adventures and essays about traveling with intention. Be sure to scroll through the entire post because I have some wonderful images taken by author Mario G. Mendoza III when he visited Paestum in 2006.
Passionate Sightseers on Paestum
An entry in a travel journal that I read not long ago brought up an important question: has modernity gone too far in its push to offer tourists too neat a package where historical sites are concerned? The author of the entry, Bernard Berenson, was one of many men who had developed a fascination with a particular site that I believe proves it has. The three Doric temples at Paestum in Southern Italy also drew the interest of Giovanni Battista Piranesi and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.
The ancient Greek ruins—dedicated to Poseidon, Hera, and Athena—were abandoned for centuries in a desolate setting surrounded by mosquito-infested swampland north of Naples. The three structures, which date back to 550 BCE, were found by a crew constructing a road in 1746. Can you imagine parting the bushes and seeing such an ancient discovery towering over the marshy landscape right before your bewildered eyes?
My introduction to these crumbling temples at the edge of the Bay of Salerno was an exhibition of drawings by Piranesi shown at The Morgan Library & Museum several years ago. The compositions sent me on a quest to find out more about him and the historical site that was frozen in time near the end of the eighteenth century by his artistic genius. I hit the jackpot when I found John Wilton-Ely’s elegant book Piranesi Paestum & Soane. In it, the author credits Piranesi’s early training in set design for the loveliness the draughtsman achieved in his drawings, as well as the 20 years he practiced architecture in Venice before moving to Rome in 1740.
Another aspect of his training that made him well suited to this endeavor was his move from Venice to Rome, which forced him to spend time developing his drawing skills. When he couldn’t land any architectural commissions, he turned to etching souvenir views of the Grand Tour Market and selling them to tourists. “Few other topographical engravers could rival his legendary skills in conveying the powerful formal abstraction of stone structures with the play of light during the passage of the sun and the nuances of atmospheric perspective,” Wilton-Ely wrote. Describing how much effort Piranesi put into his chronicling of the ruins during several trips to Paestum in 1777 and 1778, he noted the artist studied the progression of the sun and the weather conditions, both of which affected the shadows that the temples cast at different times of the day, in order to create a living backdrop for them.
Scholars believe that Piranesi put more detail into these particular drawings than normal because he was nearing the end of his life and he felt he had to produce as full a vision as possible so his eldest son Francesco could finish them after he was gone. In preparation for his role in the project, Francesco had accompanied his father when he trekked to the site to study and measure the remains. In the end, Piranesi’s intuition was spot-on, as he died before he could complete the series, the compositions the poorer for his passing. Looking at the drawings and others in his body of work, it’s easy to see why Piranesi would inspire many artists and architects during his time, an influence that would continue well beyond his demise.
One of his biggest admirers was Sir John Soane, who had collected the drawings I saw at The Morgan. His fascination with Piranesi’s work grew stronger after Soane met the artist while on his Grand Tour in 1778, arriving in Rome just a few months before Piranesi died. Soane, who took his first journey to Paestum in 1779, said he felt shock when he initially saw the temples because they forced him to seriously consider proportions outside his former preconceptions. Wilton-Ely noted how this was the case for quite a few architects who made pilgrimages to the site during what we now see was a pivotal time in building design.
Goethe, who visited the ruins in 1787, also balked at the architecture the first time he saw it. In his book Italian Journey, the author called the proportions of the temples confusing, saying he was stupefied when he first came upon them because his sensibilities had become conditioned to a slenderer style of architecture. This made the “crowded masses of stumpy conical columns” appear “offensive and even terrifying” to him. He grew to accept them only after he reminded himself they had been built in antiquity. It was then he thanked his guardian angel for having allowed him to see them with an altered vision.
“Reproductions give a false impression; architectural designs make them look more elegant and drawings in perspective more ponderous than they really are,” he claimed. “It is only by walking through them and round them that one can attune one’s life to theirs and experience the emotional effect which the architect intended.” Goethe’s initial jolt was the exact opposite reaction to Berenson’s, who shared his response to the temples in one of his many travel diaries published as The Passionate Sightseer, which is such a fitting description of the man who turned travel journaling into an artform.
Berenson said the ruins had originally been one of the most magical and promising visions he had ever beheld, in part because the metopes were still lying around in the open or in shreds on the ground, which “allowed the serious student to discover and enjoy them” as they had been for centuries. He felt the ancient temples, though in tatters, brought to mind a spot where Odysseus might have come ashore, lured by Calypso singing at her loom. Juxtapose this effusiveness against his disappointment when he visited the ancient Greek artifacts for the second time in 1955, his excitement at trekking there again palpable as he began the entry: “Suddenly far below us the sparkling sea and what did my eyes behold? More romantic than the first glimpse of Segesta as you approach it from the north, are the temples of Paestum.”
The joy didn’t last long because upon his arrival, he was “jostled by bored and weary tourists” who were pouring out of automobiles. Then, as he drew closer to the ruins, he saw that the primitive remains were surrounded by barbed wire, barring proximity to the temples. Even the museum on the site, which had been built since his first glimpse of the jagged stones scattered on the ground, brought him dismay: “It seems to me a great pity in a way not to leave these finds in that enchanting meadow close to the river, with its wooded banks and the branches of huge old cork oaks dipping into the green current. To the waterless Greek pioneers, it must have seemed a paradise.”
He concluded his entry with a poignant assertion: “Perhaps the decline from poetry to archaeology is inevitable.” It speaks volumes that this passionate sightseer would rather have come upon a setting more amenable to Odysseus than one accommodating the hubbub that infects our daily lives—a commotion so pervasive that all we ask of a trip to historical landmarks is an atmosphere that gives us an opportunity to imagine them as they might have been without unnecessary distractions.
The Temples in 2006
Here are the images of Paestum in 2006 taken by Mario G. Mendoza III when he visited, all photos copyrighted by him. You can find his books on Amazon [buy only if you are fluent enough in Spanish to read in the language].
Architecture this old brings out feelings of awe for me.
It’s incredible how the vibrant light illuminates the striations in the stone and the patina of the architecture.
How remarkable that this collection of temples still exists!
I’d like to thank Mario for sharing these images with me. I hope you enjoy seeing them as much as I do.
*Images of all of the drawings by Giovanni Battista Piranesi courtesy of the Trustees of Sir John Soane’s Museum and The Morgan.
A Passion for Paestum © Saxon Henry, all rights reserved. Saxon is an author, journalist, poet, and strategist whose books include The Modern Salonnière, Anywhere But Here, Stranded on the Road to Promise, and Four Florida Moderns.