Joseph Mallord William Turner

Inside the Theatre, Herculaneum, with the Pedestal of Appius Claudius Pulcher


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775–1851
Graphite on paper
Support: 113 × 189 mm
Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856
Turner Bequest CLXXXV 84

Catalogue entry

Herculaneum, the ancient Roman town buried by volcanic lava during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, was discovered between the modern towns of Resina and Portici in 1709. Despite being identified before Pompeii, the archaeological exploration proceeded at a much slower pace and eighteenth-century activity was limited to underground tunnelling and the removal of objects by mine shafts which were frequently filled in again. Open-air excavations did not commence until 1828. When Turner visited the site in 1819, therefore, there was very little to see apart from a few passages below ground which tourists could only see in the company of a guide. Henry Coxe, for example, described the experience in A Picture of Italy, first published in 1815:
As all the openings to these subterranean ruins, one excepted, have been closed some time; it may be necessary the traveller should know that the officious Cicerone, who stands at this entrance should not be regarded: the money paid here might as well be thrown into the street; his curiosity will only be wearied with a perpetual sameness: he will be dragged up and down through damp, cold passages, without light or fresh air ... In fact there is little or nothing worth seeing, as the most magnificent works of art that have been brought to the light, are deposited in the Museum at Portici. The Theatre is the only object deserving of any notice.1
By the early nineteenth century, one of the few public buildings of note to have been discovered was the theatre which lies to the north of the main town.2 Buried under approximately ninety feet of volcanic matter, it had been partially excavated by digging channels into the rock and although its overall structure remained hidden, these openings offered snapshots of the semi-circular design, the tiered seating area, the stage and the orchestra. Turner would have visited these underground chambers by candlelight, and a similar tour was outlined by Sarah Atkins in her book, Relics of Antiquity, exhibited in the Ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, first published 1825:

Nicola Moorby
November 2010

Henry Coxe, A Picture of Italy, 2nd edition, London 1818, p.383.
The theatre is outside of the present-day archaeological site of Herculaneum and is currently not open to the public. Virtual views in the eighteenth-century tunnels can be seen online at ‘Herculaneum Panoramas’,, accessed November 2010.
Sarah Atkins (later Lucy Wilson), Relics of Antiquity, exhibited in the Ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum, with an account of the destruction and recovery of those celebrated cities, London 1825, p.53.
Powell 1984, p.496 note 82.
Guide to Herculaneum Illustrated, Pompeii 1870, p.28. See also E.R. Barker, Buried Herculaneum, London 1908, p.186, Mary C. Sturgeon, ‘Dedications of Roman Theatres’, in Hesperia Supplements, vol.33, 2004, p.416, and the website of ‘Scavia archeologici di Ercolano’,, accessed November 2010.
Compare a nineteenth-century illustration of the chamber and the pedestal, after de Forio, ‘Part of the Stage of the Theatre’, reproduced in Barker 1908, between pp.40–1. See also a virtual panorama of the view at, accessed November 2010.
The inscription has been translated elsewhere as ‘The people of Herculaneum raised (this statue) to Appius Claudius Pulcher, son of Caius, consul and general, after his death’, see Barker 1908, p.186.
See Gage 1974, p.87 note 52.

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