Slice of history

Ancient Pompeii fresco shows a possible pizza precursor

Experts say wall painting doesn’t depict Italy’s iconic dish, as tomatoes and mozzarella cheese were not available when it was daubed around 2,000 years ago

The wall of an ancient Pompeian house with a fresco depicting a table with food, but not pizza, June 27, 2023. (Pompeii Archaeological Park via AP, ho)
The wall of an ancient Pompeian house with a fresco depicting a table with food, but not pizza, June 27, 2023. (Pompeii Archaeological Park via AP, ho)

MILAN — A still-life fresco discovered recently in the Pompeii archaeological site looks like a pizza, but it’s not, experts at the archaeological site said Tuesday.

They noted that key ingredients needed to make Italy’s iconic dish — tomatoes and mozzarella — were not available when the fresco was painted some 2,000 years ago.

Tomatoes were only introduced to Europe from the Americas a few centuries ago, and some histories have it that the discovery of mozzarella led directly to the invention of pizza in nearby Naples in the 1700s.

The image is instead believed to be a focaccia covered with fruit, including pomegranate and possibly dates, finished with spices or a type of pesto, experts said. In the fresco, it is served on a silver plate and a wine chalice stands next to it.

“What was depicted on the wall of an ancient Pompeian house could be a distant ancestor of the modern dish,” said experts at the archaeological park in a statement.

The contrast of the frugal meal served in a luxurious setting, denoted by the silver tray, is not unlike modern-day pizza, “born as a poor-man’s dish in southern Italy, which has won over the world and is served even in starred restaurants,” said Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Pompeii archaeological site.

The wall of an ancient Pompeian house with frescoes, one depicting a table with food, June 27, 2023. (Pompeii Archaeological Park via AP, ho)

The ancient Roman city of Pompeii was destroyed in the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE. The sudden and deadly event left much of the structure intact, embalmed in volcanic ash, and the site is now a major archaeological project and tourist attraction.

New excavations revealed an atrium of a house that included an annex with a bakery, partially explored in the late 19th century.

“In the working areas near the oven, the skeletons of three victims have been found in the past weeks,” said experts at the park.

Archaeologists estimate that 15 to 20 percent of Pompeii’s population died in the eruption, mostly from thermal shock as a giant cloud of gases and ash covered the city.

The Coldiretti ag lobby group immediately seized on the discovery of the fresco to promote pizza — invented as a quick meal for the working poor — as a national treasure. Today, pizza represents one-third of the food budget of foreign visitors and generates total annual revenues of 15 billion euros ($16.4 billion) in Italy.

The art of the Neapolitan pizza-maker was put on UNESCO’s intangible cultural heritage list in 2017, recognized for its four phases of dough preparation and for being baked exclusively in a wood oven at 485 degrees Celsius (905 degrees Fahrenheit.)

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