Pompeii: A Fresco Unearthed in New Excavations of Regio IX Sheds Light on Ancient Cuisine

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Revealing Culinary Artistry: Pompeian Fresco Illustrates Early Pizza-Like Dish”

While it bears a striking resemblance to a pizza, this image from a fresco found in Pompeii, painted over two millennia ago, couldn’t possibly depict the modern dish as we know it. The most iconic ingredients – tomatoes and mozzarella – are noticeably absent. Yet, an initial pictorial examination of a recently discovered fresco in insula 10 of Regio IX in Pompeii suggests that what adorned the walls of an ancient Pompeian domicile might be a primitive precursor of the current-day culinary marvel that was recognized as a World Heritage element in 2017: the “traditional art of the Neapolitan pizza chef”.

Related articles: Pompeii: Discovered the House of a Middle-class Family with Preserved Furnishing, Pompeii: Discovered the Room of the Slaves

As stated by the experts at the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, the fresco may be interpreted to display a wine cup resting on a silver tray beside a flatbread that serves as a platform for a range of fruits, (possibly including pomegranate and perhaps dates), assorted spices and potentially a kind of pesto, (referred to as moretum in Latin). This interpretation comes from the presence of yellow and ochre specks, presumably representative of seasoning. Additionally, the tray seems to contain dried fruits and a wreath of yellow strawberry trees adjacent to the dates and pomegranate.

the still life in the area Regio IX
the still life in the area Regio IX

Such artistry, historically termed Xenia, drew inspiration from the “gifts of hospitality” that hosts offered guests, a practice rooted in the Hellenistic era (III-I centuries BCE). Around 300 such portrayals exist in the cities around Mount Vesuvius; they often resonate with themes of spirituality and hospitality. The newly uncovered fresco astonishes not only due to its unique composition but also the impressive finesse of its execution.

A verse from Virgil’s Aeneid (Book VII, v.128 sgg.) sheds light on the significance of fruits and other agricultural products placed on sacrificial breads used as “tables”. It brings to mind a scene where Trojan heroes, after finishing their fruit meal, decide to consume the bread that served as their eating surface. This act symbolizes the fulfillment of a prophecy from the Virgilian Epic stating that the Trojans would find a new homeland when they had exhausted their food and, driven by hunger, “devoured also the tables”.

“Beyond the precise identification of the represented foods – as commented by the Director General of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii Gabriel Zuchtriegel – we find in these frescoes of the Hellenistic tradition, elaborated on by authors from the Roman Imperial Age, such as Virgil, Martial and Philostratus. I think about the contrast between a modest and simple meal that reminds us of a sphere that stands between the pastoral and the sacred on one side, and the luxury of the silver trays and the refinement of the artistic and literary representations on the opposite side. When considering this matter, how can we not think about pizza, also born as a ‘poor’ dish in southern Italy that has now conquered the world and is served in Michelin star restaurants.”

The excavation area Regio IX
© Archaeological Park of Pompeii, The excavation area Regio IX

The mural was discovered in the atrium of a house in Insula 10, Regio IX, currently under excavation. This house was linked to a bakery, partially investigated between 1888 and 1891, with explorations resumed last January. Early 19th-century excavations suggested a spacious atrium with a traditional arrangement of rooms on the eastern side and an oven entrance to the west. Removal of debris from previous excavations exposed a layer of white

pumice, indicating roof collapse, and remnants of a volcanic layer (ash layer) in the southern sector. The remains of three victims were discovered in the workrooms adjacent to the oven.

© Archaeological Park of Pompeii

The full excavation site of Insula 9 spans roughly 3,200 square meters, essentially an entire neighborhood of the ancient city that succumbed to the Vesuvius eruption in 79 CE. This endeavor forms part of a broader strategy developed over the past decade to address and rectify hydrological and conservation issues concerning the excavation boundaries. These boundaries separate the dug-out parts from the yet-to-be-discovered sections of the ancient city. The yet-to-be-excavated city encompasses approximately 22 hectares of neighborhoods and dwellings, buried under lapilli and ashes, comprising almost a third of the entire town.

The Archaeological Park of Pompeii has released an initial historical and archaeological report on the fresco in the E-Journal degli Scavi di Pompei, which is freely accessible online on their website, http://pompeiisites.org. The site provides a valuable platform for the swift dissemination of scientific findings derived from the ongoing excavations and research on this esteemed UNESCO site.

Topics: Ancient Pompeii fresco, Ancient Roman Pizza, Pompeii archaeological discovery, Neapolitan pizza heritage, excavations in Pompeii, Hellenistic tradition in Roman art, Xenia artistry in Pompeii, Pompeii fresco analysis


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