Friday, October 26, 2018


Riccardo Helg, Frontes: le facciate nell'architettura e nell'urbanistica di Pompei e di Ercolano. DISCI. Archeologia, 21. Bologna: Bononia University Press, 2018. Pp. 360. ISBN 9788869233050. €45,00 (pb).

Reviewed by John R. Clarke, University of Texas at Austin (

Version at BMCR home site

Table of Contents

Helg's is a welcome study of a neglected aspect of the architecture of Pompeii and Herculaneum: the facades of residential buildings and the ways that they changed over time. It is an original, well-conceived study that will be of great interest and value to scholars of the ancient world.

Part I provides a synthetic discussion based on the case-study houses of Part II, including a reevaluation of Vittorio Spinazzola's fundamental work,1 combined with a diachronic review of the modern scholarly literature. The author's command of the literature is impressive and complete. Helg's aim is to look beyond the formal elements of the facades of his 60 case-study houses to think of the facade in two ways: as the projection of the owner's status and in relation to urban spatial dynamics.

A strength of Helg's choice to focus on Pompeii and Herculaneum is that both are relatively well-preserved even though their economic and social organizations are different: the first a big commercial center, the other a little town limited by two waterways. He divides his study into three time periods: the late Samnite period, from Sulla to the early imperial period, and the last decades before the eruption that buried the two towns.

Chapter 2 provides the history of excavation and the restoration of facades. He covers the literature thoroughly, including the newest studies. The third chapter looks at ancient sources about development of facades and upper stories. Particularly useful is Helg's new consideration of the vocabulary of the facade. Thorough and clear, it goes beyond Vitruvius to include legal as well as poetic sources.

Chapter 4 provides a morphological dissection of the components of the facade in diachronic fashion, coming to several new conclusions: that the proportions of the entryways Samnite period related directly to the development of internal volumes; that benches are not only associated with prestigious houses but—quite often—with modest ones. Helg's discussion of other elements, such as shops, windows, roofs, maeniana, porticoes, and decoration enrich the reader's understanding of how facades expressed Roman tastes and value. For each period Helg provides synoptic tables that compare architectural elements of each house, including capitals, lintels, and jambs, as well as dimensions of the main entrances, facades, and the house itself with its building lot. His analysis confirms Amedeo Maiuri's hypothesis that there was a relationship between the dimensions of the principal doorways and the combined volumes of the fauces, atrium, and tablinum: the size of these doorways signals their role of anticipating the internal development of the house. Monumental doorways justify the height and grandiosity of the atrium.2 Over time, and especially in the post-earthquake period, even the facades of grand houses like the Casa del Fauno and the Casa di Giulio Polibio were reorganized to increase their economic potential by the insertion of openings to shops spaces. Such widespread interventions changed the character of the streetscape even while diminishing the visual and perceptual effects of a visitor's entrance experience (pp. 70; 96).

Chapter 5 discusses the form and meaning of the facade, from the domus to the new types of housing. Particularly interesting are Helg's discussions of a variety of forms that emphasize additions to the upper floors, such as the Casa del Moralista (III 4, 23), where ground-floor rooms become secondary spaces and domestic life gets transferred to the upper story, with large spaces well-illuminated by large windows (pp. 103-104, fig. 70, pl. XIIIb). External balconies, some necessary to provide access to upper-story rooms, like the big windows, changed the facades of these buildings and distinguished them from the traditional atrium houses. Internal changes accompanied these new layouts; for example, ground-floor spaces were now illuminated by light-wells rather than compluvia.

Chapter 6, "Towards a New Urban Landscape: The Contribution of Private Housing to the Image of the City," is a welcome, original contribution, especially since Helg's study discovers a much greater variety of housing types than suggested in the existing literature. Helg organizes his study by principal streets (at Pompeii, the Via di Mercurio, Via dell'Abbondanza, and Via di Nola; at Herculaneum the Decumano Massimo), secondary streets (Pompeii, Via degli Augustali, Via del Menandro; at Herculaneum, Cardine IV), alleys and peripheral areas (Pompeii, Vicolo del Lupanare, Via di Nocera). He observes that the conversion of preexisting domus into commercial spaces resulted in the systematic use of upper floors with the addition of a variety of forms that altered facades, ranging from overhanging balconies to colonnaded caenaculi. Many of these forms created colonnaded walkways on the sidewalks below. In areas of less density, like the Via di Nocera, facades become monotonous because behind them lie orchards and gardens.

Chapter 7 presents Helg's conclusions briefly. He shows how the facade contributed to the look of the city, by asking two principal questions: What role did the facades of residential buildings play in the overall look of city? How, in the last years of these towns, did the transformations of internal spaces change the urban physiognomy? In contrast to the commonly-held scholarly position that the internal spaces of the atrium house were primary bearers of meaning, Helg insists that the facades of such houses, from the Samnite period onward, include important signs of prestige, including capitals, molded cornices, lintels, and pilasters to organize facades. All of these elements relate to the surrounding street: especially its width and the visibility of the house. By the first century CE Helg notes a significant reduction in the use of complex decorative systems on facades.

As for the effects of transformations to internal spaces, it is in the last decades of these city's lives that we find the insertion of beams for new upper floors, the addition of spaces overhanging the streets, opening of new windows, and raising the overall height of residential buildings. Helg notes that the creation of new upper-floor spaces is frequently accompanied by the insertion of light wells for ground-floor illumination. The urban image of Pompeii and Herculaneum changed in a discontinuous fashion, in that remodeling efforts were rarely uniform, and often one dwelling changed while the one next to it maintained its ancient appearance. Helg concludes that the most innovative change in the urban image comes from the overhanging elements of facades that created covered passageways in the dense areas of the city.

Whereas the size of street determined the extent of facades, there was often a lack of connection between the internal spaces and the facade. Helg describes how the complex decorative systems of the facade become simpler after the Samnite period—even though there were efforts to preserve them in subsequent periods. Also important is his observation that changes in the facade come when internal plans change. Big transformations include putting beams in facades to support balconies and overhanging rooms, the addition of windows, and the tendency to increase the height of houses. Helg documents the effects that new internal spatial systems have on the appearance of facades.

Part II comprises a catalogue of the 60 case studies at Pompeii and Herculaneum that provided the basis for Helg's study (pp. 155-330). It is particularly valuable for scholars from a range of specializations who might want to conduct research on the houses in question, since it provides information gleaned from first-hand analysis, archival documents, and the available scholarly literature. For each entry, Helg provides a clear plan and charts with important statistics, including: measurements (total square meters, width, height); construction techniques; and constitutive elements of the facade (entryways, shops, windows, overhanging elements, decoration, and inscriptions).

The quality of this publication is excellent. One cannot find fault with its design or with its illustrative apparatus. The plans are clear and well-labeled, and the photographs, both in black-and-white and in color, are sharp and instructive. Of particular interest are the many archival photographs that document facades and street views near to the time of excavation; this is especially important for Pompeii, since the Allied bombing of 1943 wrought havoc on reconstructed facades and upper stories.3 The eight pages of color plates nicely complement the book's illustrative apparatus, and include several of Spinazzola's key reconstructions.

This is an exhaustively researched and well-documented contribution that shines considerable light on the varying roles that facades played in life of Pompeii and Herculaneum. It will be of interest to archaeologists, architectural historians, and researchers wishing to understand how domestic architecture responded to the exigencies of patrons over time, and how, in turn, the exteriors of these buildings contributed to the urban images of these cities.


1.   Vittorio Spinazzola, Pompei alla luce degli scavi nuovi in via dell'Abbondanza (anni 1910-1923) (Rome, 1953).
2.   Amedeo Maiuri, "Portali con capitelli cubici a Pompei," RendNap n.s. 23 (1958): 203.
3.   L. García y García, Danni di guerra a Pompei: una dolorosa vicenda quasi dimenticata (Rome, 2006). ​

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