The ancient Greek city of Paestum, on Italy’s south-west coast, is hardly discreet – its temples are glaringly obvious for all to see. Yet it was only “rediscovered” in the mid-18th century thanks to the grand tour, when the sons of aristocrats from across Europe, though mostly 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 people to direct a big Italian cultural site and is among the few female directors.
“You would expect a very serious and composed reaction but the first thing I did was scream,” she said on being told she had got the job. “Then came tears of joy.”
The first time she set eyes on Paestum, famous for its three Doric temples, dating from about 600 to 450BC, was as a child when visiting the site with her family. Her studies brought her back in 2012 to conduct research on the funerary paintings that adorned hundreds of tombs, dating from the Greek to the Lucanian and Roman eras. These were excavated in Paestum and necropolises in the surrounding area, and she studied them as part of her doctorate at Harvard University.
“I returned periodically and collaborated with Gabriel Zuchtriegel [the former director] on exhibitions, and so I maintained a relationship with the site,” said D’Angelo, who has also studied at Oxford and Cambridge, and until a few weeks ago was an assistant professor at Nottingham University. “But never would I have imagined that one day I would come back here as director. It’s a dream.”
Paestum, located in the Cilento area of Italy’s Campania region, is often overshadowed by the more popular Pompeii and Herculaneum. Even more low-profile is nearby Velia, where the Greek philosopher Parmenides was born, which along with Paestum formed part of Magna Graecia, the name of the southern Italian coastal areas colonised by the Greeks. The management of the two sites was merged in early 2020.
Founded in about 600BC, Paestum was originally called Poseidonia, from Poseidon, or Neptune, the god of the sea, to whom the city was dedicated. It was later conquered by the Lucanians and then the Romans, although D’Angelo said the transitions were gradual.
“You have to think that these people coexisted. They negotiated space and power, and there is archaeological evidence of this: for example, the funerary paintings allow you to reconstruct this much more complex context,” she added.
Paestum’s walls and amphitheatre remain mostly intact, but it was only in the second half of the 20th century, when excavations began in earnest, that hundreds of painted graves were found in and around the area, including the Tomb of the Diver – the only one dating back to the Greek period. Discovered in a small cemetery in the late 1960s by the noted archaeologist Mario Napoli, its huge grave ledger depicts a naked man diving into the sea, said to be a metaphor of the transition from life to death. Other slabs from the tomb depict scenes of a banquet and homosexual love.
The tomb is among those housed at Paestum’s museum, and about 400 are currently held in a warehouse that D’Angelo plans to periodically open to the public. The majority date to the Lucanian period.
“You might think these paintings were just a commemoration of the dead, but they were part of the funerary process, as they were actually painted during the ceremony,” she said.
Other treasures found at Paestum include various pottery, weapons and ancient Greek homes.
Over in Velia, founded by Phocaean Greek colonists who made 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 warrior helmets believed to have originated from the battle, one taken from the enemy. Also found were vases and the remains of a temple dedicated to the goddess Athena. “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,” said D’Angelo.
She plans to consolidate the two parks, including establishing a bus link between them. In Velia, work is under way to make a former railway tunnel, currently serving as a warehouse for the site’s treasures, accessible to the public. A museum is planned at Velia, while more space will open at Paestum’s museum this year.
The Easter weekend was D’Angelo’s first as director, and there was a record number of visitors, a sign that she could be in for a busy time.
“I am grateful to all who made this opportunity possible, not only the director general who chose me, but my parents and the teachers at high school who made me passionate about the ancient world and art, and my supervisors and colleagues at the various museums I worked at,” she said.