This chapter of Digging-Up. Atlas of the Blank Histories it came after a fact-finding investigation of the area of the ancient and contemporary city of Pompeii, in search of unknown, omitted, or forgotten narratives and stories, intertwined with memories but also with possible narratives, hypotheses, and interpretations. These stories, which may be considered minor but which run alongside history, are imprinted and sedimented in the subsoil and have been brought to light and mapped by means of a series of core samples, bringing them up from the ground that buried them.
From the discovery in 1936 of an enigmatic magical square (with the inscription TENET) on a column in the Large Palaestra in ancient Pompeii, to Lake Avernus, where the poet Virgil sets Aeneas’ access to the world of the hereafter, and where the Fata Morgana cast her spell, through to the unauthorised buildings and the concealment of the archaeological site in Pollena Trocchia, all the way to the Vesuvius Observatory. The uniqueness of the area is set out in stories, documents and legends handed down by the local inhabitants, who helped select the sites where the extractions were made.
The core samples inside the Archaeological Park of Pompeii were taken from the Large Palaestra, the Tower of Mercury, the Villa of Diomedes, and the Triangular Forum. In external areas administered by the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, core extractions were carried out at the Suburban Sanctuary in the Fondo Iozzino (Pompeii), Villa Sora (Torre del Greco), and Villa San Marco (Castellammare di Stabia). In the area administered by the City of Pompeii, in Messigno, and close to the chapel of Santa Giuliana. Further operations were carried out at the archaeological park of Herculaneum and at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in the National Park of Vesuvius.
Documentary material and on-site inspections carried out during the survey led to other areas being identified, though no core-drilling could be carried out due to the procedures required for obtaining permits. These areas included the Cryptoporticus (Naples) in the archaeological site of San Lorenzo Maggiore, where the remains of the ancient Forum of Neopolis can be seen, the Nuceria Gate (Pompeii), where two perfectly intact bodies of men fleeing the eruption of Vesuvius were found 1979, and the Ponte della Maddalena (Naples), a place linked to the miracle of the blood of Saint Januarius, as well as the Bagni della Regina Giovanna (Sorrento), the reservoirs of Nervi (Pozzuoli), the solfatara (Pozzuoli), the Villa of Augustus (Somma Vesuviana), Cape Miseno (Bacoli) and Pollena Trocchia (Naples).
After being extracted, the cores were examined by a geologist and then put on display inside their standard containers in some of the rooms in the Villa Arianna (Castellammare di Stabia), in an exhibition entitled Digging Up: Atlas of the Blank Histories / Indagare il sottosuolo. Atlante delle storie omesse (25 Oct - 18 Nov 2018). Forming part of the archaeological complex of ancient Stabiae, the villa contains the very essence of the project, in terms of both its history and its position. Built on the Varano hill from the second century BC, the Villa Arianna was enlarged over the years with a number of official reception rooms, even though it is impossible to know exactly how big it was, since large parts of the rooms closest to the sea have collapsed in landslides along the cliff. Devastated by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, the Villa was discovered and explored during the Bourbon period, in the second half of the eighteenth century. It was stripped of its contents and of its most precious frescoes, before being reburied and brought back to light only from 1950. With all its ups and downs, the Villa Arianna has a history that takes us back to an ancient, luxuriant world that was obliterated by the eruption, and through to its rediscovery and plunder, to archaeological investigations and abandonment, oblivion, and neglect, and ultimately to its recent restoration.
When the exhibition ended, the cores were placed in an iron container, which was then sealed and buried, turning it into a time capsule. The container was buried on the slopes of the volcano in the Vesuvius National Park, in a spot marked by a slab of local lava stone with the dates of the burial and disinterment engraved on the surface. The latter is expected after a century. and its geolocation coordinates have been sent to the International Time Capsule Society (ITCS) in Atlanta, Georgia. Plaques with the extraction data were set up at each point where a core sample was taken, creating an open-air museum of the local area, from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii all the way to the slopes of Vesuvius.
The exhibition at the Villa Arianna was preceded by a presentation at Manifesta 12 in Palermo, where the research methodology on which the Digging-Up project is based was shown for nine days (16-24 June 2018). The public were able to see the process of how the history of a place is investigated by gathering, analysing, selecting, and making known some of the lesser-known events that took place there. At the exhibition in Palermo, one of the stories that emerged during the research project in Pompeii was compared with the activities and history of the Monte dei Pegni di Santa Rosalia (the “pawn house of Saint Rosalia”) in the Palazzo Branciforte, where the exhibition was held. The two stories revolve around both the presence and absence of objects: the finds from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, which were stolen but then returned in recent times because it was believed they brought the “evil eye”, or bad luck, as can be seen in the letters that accompanied their return, and the objects that were pawned, to meet various contingent needs, at the Monte di Pietà. These objects were destroyed in an accidental fire that broke out during the revolutionary uprising on 17 January 1848. The ancient finds, now removed from their original context, are mere fragments, pieces of a hypothetical puzzle that cannot be reconstructed with any degree of certainty, just as the personal belongings pawned at the Monte di Pietà and then lost can only be imagined by reading the descriptions that remain in the institution’s registers.
The project – which was promoted by Fondazione Donnaregina per le Arti Contemporanee/Madre, a contemporary art museum of Campania Region, and by the Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo in Turin – won the second edition of the Italian Council 2017, a competition launched by the Direzione Generale Arte e Architettura Contemporanee e Periferie Urbane (DGAAP) of the Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Activities to promote Italian contemporary art at an international level. With the coordination of Anna Cuomo and the scientific supervision of Andrea Viliani for Madre museum, the project was carried out in collaboration with the Archaeological Park of Pompeii (to which the work was donated as part of the Italian Council 2017 project) and with the City of Pompeii, the Archaeological Park of Herculaneum, the Vesuvius National Park Authority, and the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, with the collaboration of the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per l’Area Metropolitana di Napoli, the Soprintendenza Archeologia, Belle Arti e Paesaggio per il Comune di Napoli, Chiesa di Napoli, and the City of Pozzuoli.