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A breast is a breast is a breast
Alide Cagidemetrio
13 June 2022
published in Issue One

A single breast of a young woman was uncovered in Pompeii in 1772. This sensational discovery attracted the attention of William Hamilton, British ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples, antiquarian, archeologist, and husband of Emma, the famous mistress of Lord Nelson. In his Account of the Discoveries at Pompeii: Communicated to the Society of Antiquaries in London (1777), Hamilton informed his fellows about the extraordinary excavation of the Villa of Diomedes, and the objects of domestic use found there: pieces of jewelry, coins, wine jars, fragments of fabric. Most remarkable, though, were the human remains: « eight adult skeletons, and the skeletons of two children. » They were preserved, he explained, by stages in Vesuvius’s eruption (he was an amateur vulcanologist, too): the city was « first covered by a shower of hot pumice-stones and ashes, and then by a shower of small ashes mixed with water », the hardened mixture of which produced impressions of bodies and objects. « In the Museum of Portici, » he noted, « a piece of that sort of hardened mud is preserved; it is stamped with the impression of the breast of a woman, with a thin drapery over it. » Thus began the long story and public fame of the Pompeian breast.

To contemplate Pompeii is to contemplate archeology in its most extreme form, framed by the wish not only for discovery, but for resurrection. Death is the artist, as Chateaubriand put it, and the living feel a Pygmalion-like need to bring life back into the statuary it created. Archeologists themselves hybridized objective observations of Pompeii’s human remains with fanciful stories about those humans’ lives and deaths. But bringing back the dead to a narrated life was the task of novelists, who gave form to the earliest and most titillating archeological fantasies.

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William Hamilton, Account of the Discoveries at Pompeii: Ccommunicated to the Society of Antiquaries of London (London: W. Bowyer and J. Nichols, 1777), 15.

Charles-Marguerite-Jean Baptiste Mercier Dupaty, Sentimental Letters on Italy; Written in French by President Dupaty in 1785, vol. 2 (London, 1789), 148-9. See also Eugene Dwyer, Pompeii’s Living Statues (University of Michigan Press, 2010), 10-16.

Samuel Richardson, Clarissa (Penguin, 1985), 705.

Francois Mazois, Les Ruines de Pompei, Partie 2 (Paris: Firmin Didot, 1824), 90. All translations mine.

William Bernard Clarke, Pompeii, vol. 2 (London: Charles Knight, 1837), 238.

Meilee D. Bridges, « Object of Affection: Necromantic Pathos in Bulwer Lytton’s City of the Dead » in Shelley Hales and Joanna Paul, eds., Pompeii in the Public Imagination from its Rediscovery to Today (Oxford, 2011), 101; Goran Blix, From Paris to Pompeii: French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archeology (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008).

Chateaubriand, Travels in America and Italy, vol. II (London:, Henry Colburn, 1828), 268-9, 252.

Thomas Gray, The Vestal, or a Tale of Pompeii (1830); Edward Bulwer-Lytton, The Last Days of Pompeii (London: Bentley, 1834).

Bulwar-Lytton, 19-20, 387.

S.J. Hales, « Re-casting Antiquity: Pompeii and the Crystal Palace », Arion: A Journal of Humanities and the Classics, Third Series, 1 (2006), 106.

George Scharf, The Pompeian Court in the Crystal Palace (London: Crystal Palace Library, and Bradbury and Evans, 1854), 46.

Theophile Gautier, Le Palais Pompeien (Paris: Toinon, 1866), 5.

Blix, From Paris to Pompeii, 49. On Fiorelli’s casts, scopophilia and fetishism of the dead, see Shelley Hales, « Cities of the Dead », in Hales and Paul, Pompeii in the Public Imagination from Its Rediscovery to Today, 154-171; Giuseppe Pucci, « Cadaveri eccellenti: Le vittime di Pompei nell’immaginario moderno », in Mare Internum, 4 (2012), 71-90.

Theophile Gautier, « Arria Marcella », in One of Cleopatra Nights and Other Fantastic Romances, translated by Lafcadio Hearn (New York: Brentano, 1900), 213.

Sigmund Freud, « Case Studies » in Collected Papers, Vol.3 (London: Hogarth Press, 1946), 74-5.

Sigmund Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (New York: Basic Books, 1955 [1909]), 122.

Wilhelm Jensen, Gradiva: A Pompeian Fancy (New York: Moffat, Yard and Co., 1918), 101.

Amedeo Maiuri, Pompei ed Ercolano: tra case ed abitanti (Firenze: Giunti, 1998 [1958]), 39-41.