25 OCTOBER 2003, Page 72

Rediscovering Paestum

Russell Chamberlin on how the city was left to brigands and buffaloes

paestum, 40 km south of Salerno in southern Italy, is something of an enigma among Italian archaeological sites. It has never been a 'lost city', as is sometimes claimed. It's difficult to lose a city that has three enormous Greek temples towering above a narrow, fertile coastal plain for over 2,000 years. Founded by the Greeks as Poseidonia in the 7th century BC, taken over by the Romans who changed its name, it flourished until well into the 2nd and early 3rd centuries AD. Even as late as the 6th century, local Christians built a church there, using plundered material from the ancient city.

The city did not experience the sudden dramatic fate of Pompeii. It simply died of attrition. A realignment of the imperial roads isolated it: the silting up of the mouths of its rivers created a malarial marsh. The inhabitants retreated to the healthy hills a few miles away and built a new town, Capaccio, leaving Paestum to brigands, buffaloes and mosquitoes.

The 'rediscovery" of Paestum can be dated with some precision to 1750 when an intrepid French architect, Jacques Soufflot, visited the area and subsequently wrote an account in a learned journal published in Lyons. Others cautiously followed: the doyen of archaeologists, Winkelman, in 1758; Piranesi in 1778; Canova in 1779; Goethe in 1787, placing Paestum on the itinerary of the by then established Grand Tour. But it was on the furthermost southern limit of the tour. Well-heeled young milorcls and the like were content to swagger in Florence or Rome, and the intrepid might even penetrate to Naples, but all beyond was night and fog. It was left to writers and particularly artists to bring the 'lost city' to a wider public and so eventually ensure its preservation, In July this year a local group, the Fondazione Gian Battista Vico, opened a permanent exhibition on the theme Paestum in the Travels of the Grand Tour. Appropriately, the exhibition is housed in a disused 18th-century monastery, in Capaccio, the hilltop successor to ancient Paestum. Included are documentary materials and a number of superb Greek vases discovered in Paestum. But the bulk of the exhibition consists of graphic works of the 18th and 19th centuries.

In choosing the exhibits the organisers have placed accuracy above artistic content — with one exception: Piranesi's engravings. While recognising that he created 'visions rather than views', it was decided to include him because, 'The images he created in 1778 are probably those that most remain in collective memory.' William Gail's lithograph of the Temple of Neptune (reproduced in the catalogue) comes in for particular praise for its accuracy: 'The natural history of the Mediterranean appears almost as the protagonist of the scene with the two flowering aloes and the prickly pears on the ruins.' Gatti and Dura's lithograph shows the stagnant nature of the site in 1830. Franz Catel's oil painting, although romantic, shows the buffaloes, which were a menace to travellers hut a major source of income to the locals, as they are today. What is surprising is how late the abandonment continued. Antonio Coppola's gouache of 1880 shows a desolate landscape similar to the landscape of SaintNon's engraving of a century earlier.

The siting of the museum is superb, in effect extending into real space the theme contained within its walls. From the windows of the gallery and from the charming little square just outside the monastery is a tremendous vista of the plain below with the temples of Paestum in the middle distance and, far off, the Tyrrhennian with Capri and the Amalfi peninsula.

The handsome catalogue is evidently intended as a reference work so the selection of illustrations is somewhat puzzling. In addition to ten full-plate, fully coloured reproductions, are 32 miniature black-andwhite prints of the 150 or so works. It is not clear why this 32 has been selected or why, for instance, there are ten engravings of our own Thomas Major while others, including those of his compatriot Henry Swinburne, are ignored. The introduction to the catalogue is also a touch parochial, assuming local knowledge. Which is a pity for one would like to know more about this remarkable Fondazione Gian Battista Vico which has achieved so much in its short life.

Founded in 1997, it works closely with state organisations, no small achievement given Italian officialdom, somewhat on the lines of our National Trust. In an eloquent introduction, the foundation's president, Vincenzo Pepe, describes the appalling condition of the monastery before it was taken over. Everywhere was rotting rubbish and scuttling rats. 'We closed our eyes dreaming that from the nauseous filth a museum might arise as a testament of rebirth.' I understand that an English translation of the catalogue is in process. Advantage perhaps could be taken to provide a brief profile of the Fondazione.

For information on opening hours, contact: Azzienda Autonoma Soggiomo e Turismo, via Magna Grecia 887-84063, Paestum SA, Italy; tel: 0039 0828 811 01.