“I cried for joy”: Young director on the guardian of the Italian temples of Paestum | Italy
The ancient Greek city of Paestum on Italy’s south-west coast is anything but discreet – its temples are open to all. However, it was only “rediscovered” in the middle of the 18th century thanks to the Grand Tour, when the sons of aristocrats from all over Europe, but especially from Great Britain, visited southern European cultural sites as part of their education.
Now its majestic temples have a new guardian – a 38-year-old from Milan. Tiziana D’Angelo is one of the youngest directors of a major Italian cultural institution and one of the few female directors.
“You would expect a very serious and calm reaction, but the first thing I did was scream,” she said when told she’d gotten the job. “Then tears of joy came.”
Paestum, famous for its three Doric temples dating from around 600 to 450 BC. B.C., she first saw as a child when she was visiting the site with her family. Her studies brought her back in 2012 to explore the tomb paintings that adorned hundreds of tombs and date from Greek to Lucanian and Roman times. These were excavated in Paestum and necropolises in the area and examined as part of her doctorate at Harvard University.
“I have returned regularly and have worked with Gabriel Breeding Bars [the former director] at shows, so I nurtured a relationship with the site,” said D’Angelo, who also studied at Oxford and Cambridge and was an assistant professor at Nottingham University until a few weeks ago. “But I never thought that one day I would come back here as a director. It’s a Dream.”
Located in the Cilento area of Italy’s Campania region, Paestum is often overshadowed by the better-known spots of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Even more understated is nearby Velia, birthplace of the Greek philosopher Parmenides, which along with Paestum was part of Magna Graecia, the name given to the southern Italian coastal areas colonized by the Greeks. The management of the two locations was merged at the beginning of 2020.
Paestum was founded around 600 BC. Founded around 1000 BC, it was originally called Poseidonia, after Poseidon or Neptune, the god of the sea to whom the city was dedicated. It was later conquered by the Lucanians and then by the Romans, although D’Angelo said the transitions were gradual.
“You have to remember that these people coexisted. They negotiated space and power, and there is archaeological evidence of this: the tomb paintings, for example, allow this much more complex context to be reconstructed,” she added.
The walls and amphitheater of Paestum are mostly intact, but it was not until the second half of the 20th century, when serious excavations began, that hundreds of painted tombs were found in and around the area, including the diver’s tomb – the only one dating from the greek time. Discovered in a small cemetery in the late 1960s by well-known archaeologist Mario Napoli, the huge grave book depicts a naked man diving into the sea, a metaphor for the transition from life to death. Other panels from the tomb depict scenes of a banquet and homosexual love.
The tomb is among those housed in the Museum of Paestum, and about 400 are currently kept in a warehouse that D’Angelo intends to open to the public on a regular basis. The majority dates from the Lucanian period.
“You might think these paintings were just a memorial to the dead, but they were part of the burial process because they were actually painted during the ceremony,” she said.
Other treasures found in Paestum include various pottery, weapons and ancient Greek houses.
Over at Velia, founded by Phocaean Greek colonists who found their way to southern Italy after their victory in a sixth-century naval battle over the Etruscans and their Carthaginian allies off the coast of Corsica, the most recent discovery was two supposed warrior helmets emerged from the battle, a taken by the enemy. Vases and the remains of a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena were also found. “They built temples that contained Greek weapons, but we also found evidence of Etruscan weapons, which tells us they also dedicated the weapons of their enemies to Athena,” D’Angelo said.
She plans to consolidate the two parks, including establishing a bus service between them. In Velia, work is underway to open to the public a former railway tunnel that currently serves as a storage place for the town’s treasures. A museum is planned in Velia, while more space will open in the Paestum Museum this year.
Easter weekend was D’Angelo’s first weekend as director and there was a record number of visitors, a sign that she could have a busy time ahead.
“I am grateful to everyone who made this opportunity possible, not only to the General Manager who selected me, but also to my parents and high school teachers who inspired me about the ancient world and art, as well as my supervisors and colleagues in the various museums I’ve worked at,” she said.