Archaeology / Discussion

Women and the History of Classical Archaeology #1: Caroline Bonaparte

Recently I’ve been reading about the history of classical archaeology. We’re all pretty familiar (or at least we become very quickly familiar) with the names of the most famous archaeologists – Schliemann, Fiorelli, Evans, Boni, Lanciani, and going back further art historians and antiquarians like Winckelmann, Piranesi, Hamilton. But these are all men, and we very rarely hear about the impact that women antiquarians had on the development of our subject. To this end I present the first in (I hope) a series of Women and the History of Classical Archaeology.

Digging for France: Caroline Bonaparte (Queen of Naples, 1808-1818)

Portrait of Caroline Bonaparte and her daughter in 1807

Caroline was the sixth of the seven Bonaparte siblings, born in 1782. In her lifetime she witnessed the French Revolution, her brother’s transmogrification from First Consul to Emperor of the French, his conquest of Europe, his fall (which she and her husband survived with their lands intact), return, second fall (when her husband was executed), and survived herself in exile in Florence until 1839. She married Joachim Murat, one of Napoleon’s closest generals, when only seventeen, and with him ruled the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies from Naples after its conquest by Napoleon.

A pretty impressive life story by anyone’s standards. But why should twenty-first century classicists care about this nineteenth-century queen, other than general interest? Well, Caroline played an important role in the excavations of Pompeii. We should not of course imagine her wielding a shovel in anything other than a symbolic fashion. But the interest and funds she diverted into the excavations allowed a significant part of the town’s public areas to be opened up for the first time.

This is a story about legitimation. As a Bonaparte, Caroline knew very well how powerful a tool classical culture could be in legitimising a new dynasty’s claims to power. Napoleon’s classical pretensions need little mention here, and Pompeii and Herculaneum had been mined by the Bourbon Kings of Naples since the cities were discovered in the eighteenth century, for the international prestige that the antiquarian study of the sites and the possession of their artworks brought them. The Vesuvian towns became the Bourbons’ emblem, rooting their dynasty in the ancient Italian past. A sense of mystique and royal ownership was created by limiting access to the sites themselves. Note taking or sketching was forbidden. Ordinary Neapolitans were limited by strict censorship laws and backward printing technology. Books about the sites in Italian were, until the late eighteenth century, issued by royal gift only. (As a result pirate publications – such as that by the Comte de Caylus in 1752 – transcribed from illicit sketchbooks circulated Europe, so that Neapolitans who wanted to learn about the towns were forced to do so from foreign editions).

Caroline and Murat’s French regime was not as concerned with such high levels of secrecy. In fact, the French governors of Napoleon’s Empire were looking for their self-declared classical predecessors across their Italian domains. Caroline’s excavations were part of a wider trend. In occupied Rome, French excavators were investigating the Forum Romanum (ultimately restoring the Arch of Titus after Napoleon’s fall in the 1820s), while in Etruria Caroline’s brother Lucien was indulging in a spot of light grave robbing in the search for ‘Etruscan vases’ (we now know them as ‘Greek’).

The Amphitheatre at Pompeii in a photograph of 1869

In Pompeii, the French excavations directed by General Championet (though of course the actual diggers were local Neapolitan workmen) uncovered parts of the city walls, as well as a large swathe of the town by the Basilica. The Murats purchased land that was still in private hands to allow the site to expand. The Forum, which was still littered with debris, was also fully cleared for the first time, and the Amphitheatre was investigated. Caroline was a frequent visitor and hoped that the whole town could eventually be uncovered, and anxious for progress periodically increased the number of workers. In 1813 there were over 400 workmen on site. (In the Forum area alone the number of diggers increased from 7 workmen with 2 carts in 1814 to 62 men, 4 carts and a master plasterer in 1817). Sir William Gell estimated that 15,000 francs were spent during Caroline’s patronage (in the 1830s the average French peasant could expect to earn about 450 francs a year.) Caroline herself took her favourite finds back to the palace to create her own private museum, and her patronage of the artist François Mazois resulted in his publication in 1824 – after she was driven from Naples – of the fullest report yet on Pompeii, transmitting her work across Europe rather too late for it to be of benefit to her regime.

Sad to say, in the past writers have tended to trivialise Caroline’s role at Pompeii. Writing half a century after her reign in the 1870s, one British scholar saw the excavations as a silly ‘fancy’ of the queen; another, in the 1960s, dismissed her with the snide description, ‘the Emperor’s youngest sister, who made up in elegance what she may have lacked in chastity.’ But her sustained interest in classical archaeology at a time when it played a significant role in how governments, particularly her brother’s, conceptualised and legitimised their rule, is surely not as a result of a mere ‘fancy’, but a passionate participation in the intellectual and political culture of her day. Through excavation she, and other French rulers across Italy, hoped to provide Bonapartist rule in the peninsula with a truly ancient foundation.  The amount of attention the site received would not reach the same level until the curatorship of Fiorelli and the unification of Italy.

Further reading: J. Harris Pompeii Awakened London, 2007(to which this article is heavily indebted); A. Cooley Pompeii London, 2003; V.C. Gardner Coates & J.L. Seydl Antiquity Recovered Los Angeles, 2007.

Next time: The Duchess of Devonshire and a very famous column…


3 thoughts on “Women and the History of Classical Archaeology #1: Caroline Bonaparte

  1. Through excavation she, and other French rulers across Italy, hoped to provide Bonapartist rule in the peninsula with a truly ancient foundation.

    How conscious do you think this project was? Did she have explicitly political aims in mind when she was planning the excavations, or is this more of a subconscious activity, driven by her own assumptions and hopes?

    • Hmmm. Obviously it’s really difficult (and a bit dodgy) to try and say what a historical figure was thinking. But I think that what’s so interesting about this period is that the intellectual interests of excavating an ancient site and the propaganda benefits of doing were so tied up together. We’re in a time where only the (political) elites really control large excavations…so funding an excavation puts you in that very exclusive group of intellectual/political elites (is there an Enlightenment ruler ideal working here too??). That’s partly why the Bourbons were so keen to control access to the site, to make damn sure that any discoveries were going to contribute to their prestige not anyone else’s. So Caroline could have been excavating purely because she was excited about Roman stuff, and reaped the prestige as a by product. I suspect though that, given the other French archaeology going on, she was very much aware of the political side of things, the Bonapartist line, and wanted to make sure that Naples was part of that. There’s an interesting book that I forgot to put on the further reading about Napoleonic archaeology in Rome, Ridley’s The Eagle and the Spade.

  2. Pingback: Teacups in the Garden » Blog Archive » Caroline Bonaparte Murat and Pompeii

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