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Review: Pompeii Artistic Landscape Project

A review of Pompeii Artistic Landscape Project, an online resource that presents Pompeian artworks in their architectural contexts, directed by Eric Poehler and Sebastian Heath

Published onMay 28, 2024
Review: Pompeii Artistic Landscape Project

Pompeii Artistic Landscape Project

Project Directors
Eric Poehler, University of Massachusetts, Amherst
Sebastian Heath, New York University

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Erin Canning, University of Guelph

Project Overview

Eric Poehler and Sebastian Heath

The Pompeii Artistic Landscape Project (PALP), generously funded by the Getty Foundation, is building a freely available tool that enables site-wide exploration of the content of wall-paintings and other artworks at Pompeii. Existing print publications have documented much of this material, especially the series Pitture e Pavimenti di Pompei and Pitture e Pavimenti di Pompei. While excellent reference works, these multi-volume publications are not widely available outside of research libraries. This circumstance is an opportunity to provide more flexible, faster, and easier digital access, which, in turn, will enable new approaches to Pompeian wall-painting as an art-historical resource and as a source of information for Roman society and culture.

PALP also benefits from a rich collection of existing digital resources, including the website Pompeii in Pictures, created by Bob and Jackie Dunn, which offers a remarkably comprehensive photographic record of the current state of the site as well as archival images, and the Pompeii Bibliography and Mapping Project (PBMP) — directed by Poehler — which has published an openly-licensed map of the site as ESRI shapefiles. Beyond these specific resources, Wikipedia and Wikidata, along with specialized gazetteers such as the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus and the recently available Open Pompeii create opportunities to link to well-known identifiers that provide important context for the information that PALP is collecting.

Within the constraints of a brief description of a complex project, our workflow can be summarized as the collection of multiple discrete statements about the content of wall-paintings that are generated by a dedicated team of students and then reviewed before publication. Examples of such statements include that a painting depicts a snake or other animal, or depicts a deity such as Dionysus or Artemis, a mythological figure such as the legendary Athenian hero Theseus, or a generic figure such as a fisherman. Each statement is linked to its spatial context. In practice, this means that a specific depiction is said to occur on a part of a wall, which in turn is in a room, then in a house, then in an insula (or city-block) of Pompeii, and then that an insula is in one of the regions into which the city has been divided. All these contextual assertions make use of the well-established system of house addresses that has developed over the course of work at the site. While allowing for the occasional conflict of previous interpretation, from “rooms” on up, PALP can usually take advantage of existing identifiers. The project is extending this detailed system of identification to individual components of wall-paintings using the principles of Linked Open Data.

The PALP website — which is very much a work-in-progress — allows browsing and searching of the data we have collected. Example URLs illustrate its current capabilities. will show a map of rooms that have depictions of snakes as well as an image gallery with many examples. Clicking on any of the outlined rooms will link to further images of that space. illustrates that the terms by which PALP is describing paintings exist within a hierarchy. That page maps and illustrates all deities identified to date. Clicking on any single deity does the same for that single example. The URL shows images of wall-paintings in a room in the House of Menander, among the largest at the site. list of all terms identified to date.

PALP is thus engaged in creating an interface that can support in-depth discovery of the content of Pompeian painting while always allowing the wider urban context to be considered. The immediate future of the project lies in continuing to develop the site as a research and teaching tool and then PALP will place all its data and code into an open archive such as and on commercial services such as GitHub. Beyond that point, the project will continue to collect data as its architecture is open-ended and can be extended to include additional aspects of the rich material remains at Pompeii.

Project Review

Erin Canning

Pompeii Artistic Landscape Project (PALP) is a linked open data project that brings together data and images from a range of sources to support the exploration of wall paintings and other artworks at Pompeii. PALP, which is a collaboration between Eric Poehler and Sebastian Heath, funded by the Getty Foundation, builds on mapping data from Poehler’s GIS project Pompeii Bibliography and Mapping Project by combining it with images from Pompeii in Pictures and information about the artworks of Pompeii from linked open data resources such as Open Pompeii and the Getty Art and Architecture Thesaurus. In doing so, PALP demonstrates the potential of linked open data to bring together a wide range of data and sources into a single digital resource, and provides a comprehensive view of artworks at Pompeii.

The PALP interface supports exploration by space through use of the map, or by type of feature or subject of artwork, both made possible through the use of keywords. The landing page encourages users to start their exploration by clicking on the map of Pompeii, one of the listed keywords, or through keyword search. The landing page map shows all of Pompeii in red, and clicking on it opens a dedicated page for Pompeii with a map image and list of visual concepts depicted by artworks in the space. There is no way to navigate deeper into the map directly, and users instead must browse through the keywords listed below the map to continue exploration.

Throughout the website, the keyword lists are presented as a single list ordered by number of matches; a potential future development could be to leverage the structure of linked open data vocabularies to group the keywords into categories in order to make it easier for users to locate relevant terms. In addition to the list of visual concepts, the page for Pompeii (and each space within it) lists subspaces which, when selected, lead to a dedicated page for the selected space. Not all of the links lead to working pages, but this is not unexpected for a website that is noted as being under construction. For links that do work, the new page then shows that space on the map in red, with the rest of Pompeii now in yellow.

The layers of maps follow this pattern: the selected space is red, the larger space is yellow, and the spaces beyond are not colored. The layers of maps also follow the same navigation trend where moving between layers in the map itself is not possible, but instead is done by selecting one of the listed subspaces. This makes for a trial-and-error mode of exploration, as users — especially those not already knowledgeable about the spatial layout of Pompeii — have to guess which of the listed areas corresponds to the part of the map they wish to explore. Navigating back to higher levels of the map is more straightforward, as a navigation breadcrumb exists above the map image on the page. Hopefully, in the future, navigation of the map using the map itself will also be possible. 

Navigating from the landing page through keyword selection brings up a map of Pompeii with relevant areas highlighted in red to identify the spaces that contain artworks depicting the selected concept. Through this mode of exploration, navigation using the map is possible: clicking on a highlighted area brings up its label, and clicking on the label brings up the page for that space. Spaces can also be selected from the list of space names provided below the map. The pages for the spaces selected through this path represent the most granular level of space, often a room, and include images of the space as well as a list of features in that location, such as columns and walls, which can then be individually selected and explored. Multiple images of the space or feature are provided, giving users an idea of what the area looks like from different angles as well as at different points in time. Although all of the images have a description — presented as an image caption — and include a link to a metadata record for the image, it is worth noting that the images themselves do not have associated alt-text.

It is at this most granular level of room or feature that it really becomes possible to see what PALP is working to accomplish: the GIS visualization demonstrate the sheer size of Pompeii in relation to the space or feature, while the images give weight to the presence of the element, and the list of depicted concepts illustrates the complexity of the artworks. This is particularly effective for features that are shown on the map as a single red line in an expansive cartography while the photographs reveal the true physical size of that element as it would be experienced by a visitor. Having the depicted concepts linked to their own keyword selection pages further reinforces this sense of complexity and scale, supporting visitors in moving between close and distant views of the artworks at Pompeii. Using linked open data identifiers to then connect spaces and concepts to external data sources, such as Pompeii in Pictures, Pleiades, and Wikidata, also introduces a sense of academic scales: PALP, with its extensive documentation of the spaces, features, and artworks of Pompeii, is itself only one feature in a broad network of related scholarship. 

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