Ancient sites in the Bay of Naples


In the early-18th century, many visitors to Italy went no further than Rome. However, this was to change following the discovery and excavation of the ruins of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Paestum in the mid-18th century.

Eager to see these ancient sites for themselves, architects, artists and their rich patrons travelled further south to Naples, which made an excellent base for day trips to the ruins, and to experience the natural phenomenon of Mount Vesuvius. Naples soon became the second most popular city for Grand Tourists after Rome, although the summer heat and malaria-carrying mosquitoes made it a safer and more comfortable destination in the winter months.

Travellers needed a passport to enter the Kingdom of Naples, which could be obtained at the Neapolitan embassy in Rome. It was also advisable to carry letters of recommendation as an introduction to the fashionable society of British residents in Naples, so as to be welcomed into their social circle.

One such resident was Sir William Hamilton, British Ambassador to the Kingdom of Naples from 1764 to 1800, who entertained British travellers at his villas in Naples, Posillipo, Portici and Caserta. An avid collector of paintings and antiquities, he had an extensive collection of ancient Greek vases and gems, as well as an interest in volcanoes.

You can read a detailed account of the journey by road from Rome to Naples in 1857 in the travel journal of Baldwin Harry Bent (in pdf format) and find out more about him on our page about 19th-century travellers to Italy.

Pompeii and Herculaneum

Following their destruction by the catastrophic eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, the Roman towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum disappeared for centuries, buried under several feet of ash and rock until rediscovered by accident. Excavations began, first in 1738 at Herculaneum, and then at Pompeii in 1748, undertaken by military engineers. These revealed the well-preserved remains of buildings, wall paintings, mosaics, sculpture and other Roman artefacts.

There was great excitement throughout Europe as these buried cities were gradually uncovered. The new discoveries were documented in the 1770s by artists such as Piranesi and by Sir William Hamilton, who commissioned a series of twelve drawings sent to the Society of Antiquaries in London. Such drawings fuelled a revival of interest in antiquity and the classical world, which had a profound influence on 18th-century art, architecture and interiors in England and beyond. No British Grand Tourist’s visit to Italy would be complete without a visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum well into the 19th century.

The Temple of Isis at Pompeii by Francesco Piranesi, 1788. The Cleveland Museum of Art [2001.19] CC0 1.0

Many of our travellers describe their visits to Pompeii, or to see the finds from the excavations, in their travel diaries. You can read excerpts of these (in pdf format) by Thomas Orde, William Rookes Crompton and Joshua Samuel Crompton.