In a fresco found at Pompeii, a silver platter holds a spread of edible delights—including a circular flatbread that looks suspiciously like pizza.
The 2,000-year-old still life features an ornate goblet of wine, fruit and other items in front of a black background. Archaeologists unearthed it earlier this year during excavations in the ancient city, which was preserved in ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 C.E.
The pizza-like bread is round and flat, and it’s covered with an assortment of toppings. Upon closer inspection, however, it probably wouldn’t be considered a pizza using today’s definition of the term.
It’s missing tomatoes, which wouldn’t arrive in Italy until the 1500s and wouldn’t be widely eaten in the country until the 19th century, owing to a belief that the newly introduced fruit was poisonous. It also lacks mozzarella. Instead, the focaccia bread is topped with pomegranate, a fruit resembling a date, spices and other condiments that could be an early type of pesto, according to a statement from the Archaeological Park of Pompeii.
Even though the traditional toppings are absent, Gino Sorbillo, owner of one of the oldest pizzerias in Naples, thinks the painting shows a pizza. “In ancient Pompeii we already knew that there were forms of flatbread, made with grains, water, salt and maybe beer as a leavening agent,” he tells the Guardian’s Angela Giuffrida. “Then they might have topped it with vegetables or the fish of the day … It was an ancient form of pizza.”
Marino Niola, an anthropologist at the Suor Orsola Benincasa University of Naples, agrees, telling the New York Times’ Elisabetta Povoledo that many ancient cultures mixed flour with water and then baked it. He also notes the similarities between ovens found in ancient Pompeii and Naples and modern-day pizza ovens. Though “not every focaccia became pizza,” he says, the fresco is important because “it makes us understand that there is a common thread that ties the present to the distant past.”
Even in Neolithic times, tribes baked crude batters on stones, but the Neapolitan variant of pizza comes from the Greeks and Etruscans, as Gennaro Luciano, owner of the world’s oldest pizza parlor, Antica Pizzeria Port’Alba, told Smithsonian magazine’s Franz Lidz in 2021. After the introduction of tomatoes to Italy, the poor of Naples began to substitute tomato sauce for meat on their breads.
“The magical breakthrough of pizza came in 1889,” said Luciano. “That was when Queen Margherita of Savoy, consort of King Umberto I, observed peasants in Naples enjoying the people’s food.” As the story goes, she then asked the city’s most famous pizzaiolo, Raffaele Esposito, to prepare pizzas for her. Thus, pizza found its way to the elite, too.
Regardless of whether the dish pictured in Pompeii is really a pizza predecessor, the contrast between the “modest and simple” flatbread and its sumptuous silver platter is striking, says Gabriel Zuchtriegel, director general of the Archaeological Park of Pompeii, in the park’s statement. “How can we not think about pizza, also born as a ‘poor’ dish in southern Italy that has now conquered the world and is served in Michelin star restaurants?”
The still life was found in the atrium of a house that was attached to a bakery, and experts think it represents the gifts given to guests in traditional hospitality rituals. In addition to the fresco, archaeologists uncovered the remains of three individuals in work rooms near the oven.
Over the years, archaeologists have found many stunning frescoes in Pompeii. Other recent discoveries at the site include a middle-class home and a lavish residence owned by two freed enslaved laborers.
“Pompeii never ceases to amaze,” says Gennaro Sangiuliano, Italy’s culture minister, in the park’s statement. “It is a chest that always reveals new treasures.”