John Berkenhout

The Ruins of Poestum (London, 1767)

(Thomas Phillips, 1849)


The name of Dr John Berkenhout MD (?1730-1791) does not appear on the title page of The Ruins of Poestum, but it does appear there in the French translation (Paris, 1769). He is termed in the Dictionary of National Bibliography a 'physician, naturalist and miscellaneous writer', and he does seem to have been something of a polymath.

As might be expected, he wrote some medical works: Pharmacopoeia Medici (London, 1766); Dr Cadogan's Dissertation on the Gout, and all other Chronic Diseases, Examined and Refuted (London, 1772); An Essay on the Bite of a Mad Dog: in which the Claim to Infallibility of the Principal Preservative Remedies against Hydrophobia is Examined(London, 1783); and Symptomatology (London, 1784). But he also wrote Outlines of the Natural History of Great Britain(3 vols, London, 1769-71), Bibliographia Literaria: or a Biographical History of Literature (Vol.1 only published, London, 1777), Lucubrations on Ways and Means: humbly addressed to the Right Hon. Lord North (London, 1780), Clavis Anglica Linguae Botanicae: or a Botanical Lexicon (London, 1789) and Letters on Education to his Son at the University (London, 1790).

The Ruins of Poestum is Berkenhout's only classical work. He had been sent to Germany at an early age to acquire some foreign languages, and, after spending several years there, he accompanied some English noblemen on a tour through Europe. It is tempting to suppose that this tour included a visit to Paestum. Contrary to a widely held belief, Paestum (as the city is more usually known - and as, indeed, Berkenhout's plates, as opposed to his text, have the name) had never been completely lost and forgotten. But certainly the new light shed on it in the 1740s by the activities of such men as Count Felice Gazola, who commanded the artillery of the Kingdom of Naples and the Two Sicilies, led to a flood of engravings - first those of the great French architect Jacques-Germain Soufflot in a work by Gabriel-Pierre-Martin which appeared in Paris in 1764. This in turn meant that Paestum was quickly established as an essential element of the Grand Tour. It seems likely, therefore, that Berkenhout - whether he had visited Paestum himself or not - is here 'cashing in' on a lucrative new market.

The full title of the work is The Ruins of Poestum or Posidonia, a City of Magna Graecia in the Kingdon of Naples. Containing a Description and Views of the Remaining Antiquities with the Ancient and Modern History, Inscriptions &c. and some Observations on the Ancient Dorick Order. The 'Observations on the Ancient Dorick Order' are significant: the 'rediscovery' of the three magnificent and relatively complete Doric temples, coupled with the increasing accessibility of Sicily, did much to challenge the supremacy of the Roman Corinithian order and to stimulate the Doric revival. Nevertheless, in his preface Berkenhout says that his work 'is rather intended for the Connoisseur and Historian, than for the Architect'.

The book contains four plates, engraved by J.Miller, three of which are obviously based on engravings by Filippo Morghen (b. c. 1730) which had been published in 1766; these are in turn after drawings by Antonio Joli (c.1700-1777) made in 1759. The third plate, shown here, is entitled 'An inside View of the Temple Amphiprostylos at Paestum'; it shows the interior of the Temple of Hera II ('Temple of Neptune') looking West - some small craft can be seen on the sea in the background between the columns. The caption to Morghen's similar view gives the direction, being entitled 'Veduta Interiore del Tempio Esastilo i Petro dalla Parte di Levante'.

Berkenhout's work was very shortly to be eclipsed in Britain by the publication in the following year of Thomas Major's The Ruins of Paestum (London, 1768), which contains thirty plates, including a plan of each of the three great temples and engravings of Paestan coins; a copy of this is also in the Roderic Bowen Library and Archives (Thomas Phillips, 1845).