Giuseppe Fiorelli was an Italian archaeologist who became famous for his discoveries in Pompeii, and also developed a method of making plaster casts of bodies, thanks to which we can see the shape of preserved, often in convulsions, the bodies of Pompeians who died during the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE.
Giuseppe Fiorelli was born on June 8, 1823 in Naples. He finished his first works in Pompeii in 1848. Then he was imprisoned for his radical approach to archaeology and nationalism, which displeased the then king of Naples, Ferdinand II. As a political prisoner, he wrote the three-volume History of Pompeian Antiques – in 1860-1864.
Years later, he devised a detailed method to study, layer by layer, successive areas of Pompeii. At that time, he was a professor of archaeology at the University of Naples and director of excavations in Pompeii (1860-1875). What’s more, he launched a school for archaeologists of Italian origin and foreigners wishing to learn about the materials and how to build Roman structures.
But surely Fiorelli’s greatest achievement was devising a method to maintain the shape of Pompeian bodies, whose bodies had evaporated under the influence of dust and heat. During the eruption of Vesuvius, a several-meter layer of ash covered the bodies, which simply disappeared under the influence of temperature, creating an empty space inside.
In 1864, workers whom Giuseppe Fiorelli, then the director of excavations in Pompeii, ordered to report everything to him, noticed a skeleton lying in one of the alleys. Only the skull was excavated – flesh and clothing had decomposed, leaving bones in a void space bounded by fossil ashes. Fiorelli concluded that pouring liquid stucco through a small hole into this space, would recreate the shape of the body. Through a small hole, he poured stucco, which filled the entire empty space.
After setting the plaster, he removed the ash layer, revealing the casts of bodies, objects, building elements, etc. Later, transparent material was used, which allowed seeing small objects, and bones hidden inside the cast. Thanks to Fiorelli, to this day we can understand the terror of the inhabitants and see the casts of the bodies of Pompeii inhabitants twisted in deathly convulsions. This method has also found application in the preservation of plants and objects.
In the course of his management of the Pompeii excavation, Fiorelli introduced a new way of excavating objects – instead of excavating the streets first and then digging up the houses from the ground up, he had the excavation focus on the houses that archaeologists would excavate from top to bottom. Thanks to this, Roman houses could be better preserved. In turn, all mosaics and murals were removed and transported to Naples. Fiorelli also dealt with the topography of the city, which he divided into: “regiones”, “insulae” and “domus”.
In 1875 Fiorelli published the first scientific guide to Pompeii – Description of Pompeii. In the years 1875-1896 (until his death), Fiorelli was the general director of “Italian Antiques and Works of Art”.
Giuseppe Fiorelli died on January 28, 1896 in Naples. To this day, we do not know the cause of his death.