Museum Home Past Exhibitions The Herculaneum Women and the Origins of Archaeology

July 12–November 5, 2007 at the Getty Villa

Large Herculaneum Woman / Unknown
Large Herculaneum Woman, Roman, A.D. 40–60. Skulpturensammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

In 1711, workers digging a well in the small town of Resina, Italy, found three mostly intact marble statues of draped women. Heralding the discovery of ancient Herculaneum, the sculptures are known today as the Large and Small Herculaneum Women.

The excavation of these images of ideal female beauty triggered nearly three centuries of archaeological exploration at Herculaneum and nearby Pompeii. Archaeologists uncovered a theater, temples, a forum, and the suburban Villa dei Papiri, the architectural model for the Getty Villa.

On loan from the Dresden State Art Collections, the Herculaneum Women are accompanied in this exhibition by rare books, drawings, and photographs that document their discovery, history of display, and role in the development of archaeology.

Small Herculaneum Woman / Unknown
Small Herculaneum Woman, Roman, 30–1 B.C. Skulpturensammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden

The Site of Herculaneum

The ancient Roman city of Herculaneum is situated on the Bay of Naples in southwestern Italy (see map). The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 buried the seaside town under layers of volcanic debris and mud that eventually hardened into rock.

Once Herculaneum disappeared, memory of the city began to fade. Over 1,400 years later, Renaissance scholars became aware of its location from ancient texts and a late Roman map.

Map of Eastern Campania / Mocetto
Map of Eastern Campania, Girolamo Mocetto, 1514

This bird's-eye view of Campania from the early 1500s represents an early effort to pinpoint the location of Herculaneum—marked here beneath the looming peaks of Vesuvius.

The map is based on literary accounts and found artifacts and predates systematic exploration of the town by more than two centuries.

Theater / de Alcubierre
Excavation Plan of the Theater, Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre, 1739

Discovering Herculaneum at the Dawn of Archaeology

Early exploration of Herculaneum was motivated by the quest for ancient treasures to adorn the royal collections of the Bourbon monarch Charles III. The practice of random mining for antiquities gave way to a system of digging tunnels that followed the course of ancient building foundations. Both approaches can be seen in this first plan of Herculaneum's theater.

The earlier tunnels cross through the orchestra with no apparent sense of direction. Later tunnels, such as those in the seating area, were dug to reveal architectural features.

Herculaneum, and later Pompeii, eventually became models for the excavation of complex urban sites and helped give rise to modern methods of archaeology.

Sections of Theater / Piranesi
Sections of the Theater, Francesco Piranesi, 1783

Archaeological Context: The Theater

When they were discovered, the Herculaneum Women were hoisted through a well shaft that led down to the remains of a Roman theater buried 75 feet below the street level of modern Ercolano. They probably once decorated the stage's impressive double-tiered façade, along with other sculptures of mythological and historical figures.

The theater in Herculaneum was the first Roman theater found largely intact. Its grand arcades and polychrome wall paintings influenced a new generation of architects, artists, and set designers.

This engraved plan of the theater's seating by Francesco Piranesi is based on sketches probably made by his father, the architect and artist Giovanni Battista Piranesi.

King Charles / after Paderni
King Charles III, after Camillo Paderni, 1757

Promotion and Controversy

Under Charles III, who reigned from 1735 to 1759, the kingdom of Naples became renowned for its archaeological riches and fascinating geology. Imperial pride spurred the printing of officially sanctioned excavation reports and illustrated folios of antiquities. On this page from the first royal publication of ancient art from Herculaneum, Charles III poses as a sponsor of intellectual and cultural enlightenment.

Foreign scholars raced to publish competing, unauthorized accounts of the region's jealously guarded finds, and in 1764 the German art historian Johann Joachim Winckelmann published an open letter exposing the shoddy and secretive excavations conducted in the Vesuvian cities.

Menagerie / after Kleiner
Herculaneum Woman in a Menagerie, after Salomon Kleiner, 1734

The Herculaneum Women in European Princely Collections

Prince d'Elboeuf, whose workmen discovered the Herculaneum Women, presented the sculptures as a gift to Prince Eugene of Savoy in Vienna. The earliest illustrations of the Herculaneum Women, shown here, depict them among the exotic animals Eugene kept at his Belvedere Gardens.

After Eugene's death in 1736 Augustus III, elector of Saxony and king of Poland, purchased the statues to complement the royal antiquities collection in Dresden. Housed in the Albertinum since the end of the 19th century, the Herculaneum Women are centerpieces of the Dresden antiquities collection.

This exhibition has been co-organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Getty Research Institute, and the Skulpturensammlung, Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden.

The exhibition is located at the Getty Villa, Floor 2, Gallery 214. After it closes, the Large and Small Herculaneum Women will be on display in a special installation in the Women and Children in Antiquity gallery from November 8, 2007, to October 13, 2008.