Archaeologists Discover a Pizza Predecessor in Fresco Unearthed at Pompeii

| Sat, 07/01/2023 - 09:30
Detail of the fresco depicting what may be an "ancestor" of modern pizza

Ongoing excavation activities among the ruins around the Regio IX district of the ancient city of Pompeii may have hit pizza pay-dirt. 

A fresco dating back 2,000 years and depicting a curious flatbread was unearthed in the atrium of a house in Insula 10 of Regio IX — a northern area of the ancient city.

If it looks like a pizza…

Site where the still life was uncovered
View of the site where the fresco was uncovered / Ministry of Culture handout photo

The colorful and well-preserved fresco clearly illustrates a grouping of fruits, spices, and a goblet of wine on a silver tray, all next to a crust-ringed piece of dough piled high with toppings including pomegranates, dates and walnuts. All that’s missing is the tomato and cheese — ingredients that wouldn’t make their way to the peninsula until many centuries later.

According to Pompeii officials, the items depicted on the tray make up xenia, an ancient Greek and later Roman concept for nibbles and other offerings given to house guests.

Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, noted how the xenia depicted in the fresco predated the “high-low” dining trends of today, pointing to the contrast between the simplicity of the meal and its ornate, silver-trayed presentation. “In that regard, how can we not think of pizza, which came about as a ‘poor’ dish of southern Italy [and] has now conquered the world and is served in starred restaurants?” Zuchtriegel said.

Scientists and archaeologists insist that the image does not depict a pizza, at least not in technical terms, but may represent a distant “ancestor.” The savory story is making the rounds, appearing in the BBC, NPR and The New York Times, among other international publications. At least one high-profile food writer has already cooked and documented a meal based on the still life.

Modern pizza’s origin myth

The flatbread in the fresco looks a great deal like the modern iteration of pizza, minus the mozzarella and tomato — but Queen Margherita of Savoy lays claim to that legacy, at least in popular lore. In the late 19th century, the queen was touring southern Italy and is said to have taken a liking to a yeasty dish primarily consumed by Neapolitan blue-collar workers.

The story goes that Queen Margherita summoned Chef Raffaele Esposito to the palace and commanded him to create a version of the circular flatbread that would become her signature royal “snack.” Esposito’s resulting invention, the pizza margherita, was a simple one: a crusty dough layered with bright-red tomato sauce, white mozzarella and springs of green basil leaves (resembling the tricolor Italian flag). Centuries later, the epicurean art of pizza-making (pizzaiolo) was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2017. The rest, as they say, is pizza history. 

If you go

Pompeii Archaeological Park