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From Paris to Pompeii

French Romanticism and the Cultural Politics of Archaeology

By Goran Blix

Publication Year: 2011

In the early nineteenth century, as amateur archaeologists excavated Pompeii, Egypt, Assyria, and the first prehistoric sites, a myth arose of archaeology as a magical science capable of unearthing and reconstructing worlds thought to be irretrievably lost. This timely myth provided an urgent antidote to the French anxiety of amnesia that undermined faith in progress, and it armed writers from Chateaubriand and Hugo to Michelet and Renan with the intellectual tools needed to affirm the indestructible character of the past.

From Paris to Pompeii reveals how the nascent science of archaeology lay at the core of the romantic experience of history and shaped the way historians, novelists, artists, and the public at large sought to cope with the relentless change that relegated every new present to history.

In postrevolutionary France, the widespread desire to claim that no being, city, culture, or language was ever definitively erased ran much deeper than mere nostalgic and reactionary impulses. Göran Blix contends that this desire was the cornerstone of the substitution of a weak secular form of immortality for the lost certainties of the Christian afterlife. Taking the iconic city of Pompeii as its central example, and ranging widely across French romantic culture, this book examines the formation of a modern archaeological gaze and analyzes its historical ontology, rhetoric of retrieval, and secular theology of memory, before turning to its broader political implications.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5

Table of Contents

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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-viii

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pp. 1-8

When Théophile Gautier ridiculed the claims of progress in the preface to Mademoiselle de Maupin (1835–36), he could imagine no better insult than to forecast the future exhumation of Paris by disappointed archaeologists. What if ‘‘tomorrow a volcano opened its jaws at Montmartre,’’ he mused, ‘‘and buried Paris under a shroud of ashes and a tomb of lava, just as Vesuvius...

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Chapter One: Neoclassical Pompeii

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pp. 9-27

Our modern conception of archaeology as a science that unearths even the humblest vestiges of the human past with extreme care and sophistication emerged only gradually over the last two centuries. Archaeology itself, it is true, is as old as history, and evidence pushes the human preoccupation with its own monuments far back into the remote past. The Renaissance is clearly...

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Chapter Two: The Antiquarian Comes of Age

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pp. 28-47

The radical turn from a picturesque gaze to seeing in depth, however, also required overcoming a major mental hurdle: the deep-seated aversion to the triviality of antiquarian studies that polite culture and enlightened reason had imposed in the eighteenth century. The study of antiquities that the Italian humanists had championed and that had fueled the Renaissance began...

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Chapter Three: The Archaeological Turn

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pp. 48-88

After seventeen centuries beneath its blanket of ashes, Pompeii seemed to offer an ideal occasion to behold the past in its irreducible alterity, as it really was, unchanged by supervening layers of settlement and interpretation. But the gaze that first confronted Pompeii was of course far from neutral: it filtered what it saw through an idealized image of antiquity conveyed...

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Chapter Four: The Specular Past

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pp. 89-115

The literary recovery of the past favors a visual language in the nineteenth century and tends to make use of various forms of optical mediation: lost landscapes resurface through the medium of visions, paintings, mirages, panoramas, dioramas, and magic mirrors. When Gautier revives Pompeii, he invokes one of the new popular technologies of optical illusion: ‘‘the city was...

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Chapter Five: Body Politics

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pp. 116-154

‘‘Art browses through the centuries, browses through nature, and interrogates the chronicles’’ Hugo wrote in the romantic manifesto that served as preface to his gargantuan play Cromwell (1827); it ‘‘strives to reproduce the reality of facts . . . [and] restores what the annalists have truncated, harmonizes what they have disfigured, divines and repairs their omissions, fills in...

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Chapter Six: Lost Worlds and the Archive

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pp. 155-199

Pompeii lies at the heart of romantic archaeology, but it was not the only vanished world that captured the period’s imagination; there were other Atlantises, Sodoms, Babels, and Troys, from Egypt to the Caribbean, from the archaic utopia to the sinful city, which enthralled a public avid for the historical sublime. Catastophes were also all the rage: the early nineteenth...

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Chapter Seven: The Uses of Archaeology

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pp. 200-236

Archaeology was not just a vehicle of knowledge in the nineteenth century, for it also lent itself to pragmatic applications: social, political, and artistic practices often tapped into the rhetoric of archaeology in order to make progress. But the use of archaeology immediately raises a political question: was the past not earmarked as a fiefdom belonging to royalists and


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pp. 237-276


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pp. 277-298


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pp. 299-308


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pp. 309-310

E-ISBN-13: 9780812201307
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812241365

Page Count: 320
Illustrations: 16 illus.
Publication Year: 2011