The ancient Greek temples of Paestum

Paestum (known as Pesto in modern Italian) was a popular destination for many travellers to Italy in the 18th and 19th centuries. On the Gulf of Salerno, nearly sixty miles south-east of Naples, for many travellers it was the southernmost point of their journey. Like Pompeii and Herculaneum, the ruins of Paestum were a rediscovery of the 18th century. Some of the best-preserved examples of their kind in the world, the temples caused great excitement throughout Europe, particularly amongst those interested in classical architecture.

Jakob Philipp Hackert (1737-1807), View of the Basilica and Poseidon Temple of Paestum, 1777 (public domain)

This coastal area of southern Italy was known to the Romans as Magna Graecia as it was populated by Greek settlers, who founded a colony at Paestum in the 6th century BC. The settlement was named Poseidonia, after the god Poseidon, and covered an area of 120 hectares (nearly 300 acres). Here, between c.550-450 BC, three great temples were built in the Doric style, the earliest of the three classical orders of architecture. Now known to be dedicated to the goddesses Hera/Juno and Athena/Minerva, they were described in the 18th century as the Basilica, Temple of Neptune/Poseidon and Temple of Ceres/Demeter.

Many architects and artists visited Paestum to make a detailed study of the ruins. The first scholarly architectural study was published by Thomas Major (1720-1799), engraver to King George II, whose ‘The Ruins of Pæstum, otherwise Posidonia, in Magna Græcia in 1768 was based on paintings and drawings by other artists. This publication raised awareness of the site as a must-see destination for tourists and helped to promote the fashion for the Neoclassical and Greek Revival architectural styles in England and elsewhere.

A decade later, Giovanni Battista Piranesi (1720-1788) and his son Francesco (1758/9-1810) produced a series of engravings of the temples, which were published in 1778, shortly after Piranesi’s death. The artist JMW Turner (1775-1851) visited on his Italian tour of 1819–20 and made a number of sketches.

In 1772, Thomas Orde visited, described and drew the temples in his sketchbook, which are part of the Bolton Hall archive [ZBO].

Pages from the sketch book of Thomas Orde, showing (left) pencil and ink drawing of the temple of Demeter/Ceres (now Athena), and (right) the temple of Poseidon/Neptune (now Hera II) at Paestum, 1772 [ZBO IX 1/3/4]

We presume these are the sketches made on site during Thomas Orde’s visit to Paestum, as he writes in his journal:

“Peste is situated in a plain near the sea. It never was a very large place being but two miles round as is known by the walls which are yet standing and the 4 gates are nearly intric [whole/intact]. The three temples are the curious objects of the journey to this place. They are nearly intric and are of the old Doric, or perhaps of the old Tuscan order before the times of the Romans. It is pretty certain that this was an old Greek colony called Posidonia, and was in ruins even in the time of Augustus. Ovid speaks of the Rosina Peste that is all I know of the antiquity, though I believe there are some books wrote on the subject. I sketched out these buildings, so I say nothing more about them here. The way of going there is by taking a coach if you are more than two, and at Salerno you are furnished with 2 wheeled chaises that carry you to and bring you back from Peste the same day paying about 4 ducats for cash.”

From the travel journal of Thomas Orde, Thursday 3rd December 1772

Image from Thomas Orde’s book of finished drawings, showing a view of the three temples at Paestum [ZBO IX 1/3/2]

This drawing of all three temples may have been completed after his visit in December 1772, as it has been pasted into a separate book entitled ‘Finished Drawings’.

Amongst the Grand Tour papers of Lawrence Dundas, can be found a late-18th-century document providing advice for travellers to Paestum. In the 19th century, Francis Cholmeley also visited Paestum and made notes about the site in his diary.

Today, the archaeological remains at Paestum are designated as a World Heritage Site of outstanding universal value.