The Tracing Technique, The System That Allows The Remains Of The Vic.tims Of Pompeii To Be Reconstructed

“I now return from Pompeii and feel melancholy because of a sad spectacle. It is impossible to see those three deformed figures and not be moved. They died 18 centuries ago, but they are dying human creatures.


That is not art, it is not imitation; they are his bones, the relics of his flesh and his clothes mixed with plaster: it is the pain of death that takes over the body and the figure… Until now temples, houses and other objects have been discovered that arouse the curiosity of educated people, artists and archaeologists; but now you, oh my Fiorelli, have discovered human pain, which is something that all men feel”.

With these words Luigi Settembrini, in his Lettera ai pompeiani of 1863, spoke of the tracing technique developed shortly before by Giuseppe Fiorelli, Italian archaeologist and numismatist.

After the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, the city of Pompeii was buried by solid lava and pumice, causing many roofs to collapse; and it was also completely covered by ashes, which gave way to a black curtain that covered everything and buried men, animals and objects.

In the compact and resistant layer formed by the deposition of these materials, over the centuries, a series of “voids” were formed: the bodies of the deceased had decomposed, but their silhouettes had remained in the ashes. It was at the beginning of the 19th century that Fiorelli realized the importance of these “voids”, of what they represented and of everything they could explain.

The eruption of Vesuvius completely buried the city of Pompeii with lava and ash.


Antonio Bonucci, director of the Pompeii excavations in 1823, pointed out that there was the trace of a door in the ashes, but it was not until 1856 that they thought of obtaining a tracing by pouring plaster on them. Become director of the excavations, between February 2 and 5, 1863, Fiorelli decided to experiment with the same system with human remains.

He filled the “void”, where there was the remains of one of Pompeii’s many victims, with a mixture of plaster and water and waited for the mixture to solidify. Then he brought it out into the open.

The result was extraordinary: an exact copy of the victim (or in other cases of the animal or object) buried under the ashes and sediments, frozen in its last moments of life. Thanks to the technique elaborated by Fiorelli, it was possible to observe the remains of the victims of Pompeii from a different point of view: what they were wearing and what they took with them when they fled.


The first experiment carried out by Fiorelli allowed us to observe the remains of four humans from a totally different perspective: a man, a woman stretched out on her side, a girl and a woman with her face covered and her belly inflated.

The trace of the inhabitants of Pompeii, revealed almost 2,000 years later thanks to Fiorelli’s technique, is known as “tracing” and, especially in the early years, included non-decomposed remains such as bones and teeth.

Settembrini defined this technique as “the pain of death that takes over the body and the figure“, and from the 19th century until now, thanks to this technique, the rubbings of more than one hundred victims have been recovered.

Thanks to Fiorelli’s technique, the victims of the Vesuvius eruption can be observed with a distressing realism.



In recent days, in the village of Civita Giuliana, located about 700 meters northwest of Pompeii, two “voids” have been discovered in the layer of hardened ash, under which two human skeletons have been found.

What has appeared is extraordinary and at the same time very painful: two men, one between 18 and 25 years old, and the other between 30 and 40 -presumably slave and master- surprised by the second pyroclastic wave -that of the morning of 25 October – when, having survived a terrible night, they tried to flee what was left of Pompeii.

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