Explosive Grandiosity


National Gallery Unearths Pompeii’s Lavish Past

In the days before Mt. Vesuvius erupted in a shower of fire, smoke and ash in 79 A.D., life in and around Pompeii, Italy, was grand. No, make that really, really grand.

That grandiosity is largely the focus of a fabulously entertaining exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples” offers museum visitors a virtual tour of three magnificent Roman homes, as well as a chance to peruse 150 works of sculpture, painting, mosaic and luxury arts. Most of these artistic treasures were created before the eruption of the infamous volcano and subsequent devastation of a swath of luxurious communities along the Bay of Naples.

Those seeking a macabre thrill and hoping for a gallery of death and destruction will be disappointed, at least until the end of the display, where several large oil paintings and other artifacts render scenes of devastation and the aftermath of the explosion that wiped out this iconic Roman town-city near modern Naples.

The focus here is primarily on happier times and the accoutrements of the good life, excavated from richly decorated seaside villas and houses in the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, which was also buried by Vesuvius. But before the volcano’s wrath, beginning around the first century B.C., this area was the playground of the rich and well connected, and the exhibition opens with an introduction to the types of people who called the region home during the spring and summer months, including members of the imperial family and the newly wealthy.

Visitors are immediately greeted by marble busts depicting Roman emperors Julius Caesar, Nero and Gaius, also known as Caligula, or “little [soldier’s] boots” for his travels with his father on military campaigns. Nearby, a plaster relief of an athlete holding a hoop is breathtaking if only for reasons of preservation. Just the idea that such a fragile, delicate-looking piece of art could survive the millennium is astounding.

Another item in the collection, a rock crystal skyphos — or drinking cup of sorts — is decorated with exquisitely carved vines. This vessel would have been extremely valuable because the Romans believed that rock crystal was actually permanently frozen ice that could keep liquids cool.

A mosaic of Plato’s Academy is stunning in its own detail, as each fragment of stone collaborates to bring a teaching session to shimmering life. Surrounded by philosophers, Plato points to a globe as part of his lesson. According to the wall text, generations of Plato’s followers studied in this very grove, represented by a single tree, until the Byzantine Emperor Justinian outlawed the teaching of pagan philosophy in 529.

The exhibition also has moments of great whimsy, especially a fountain figure of Silenos, the Greek god of drunkenness and winemaking, riding an outsize wineskin. He resembles the more modern images of a muscled, vivid Viking, his long beard seemingly tousled by the winds.

An adjacent sculpture of Epicurus, the Greek philosopher, is accompanied by wall text that quotes the sage as prophetically saying, “Pleasure is the beginning and end of living happily.”

One of the exhibition’s highlights is a dining room excavated from the site of Moregine on the Sarno River south of Pompeii. The room — discovered in 1959 and fully excavated from 1999 to 2001 — features three dining room walls decorated with images of Apollo, god of the arts, with his muses. The site was largely submerged in water, which was pumped out so the frescoes could be salvaged. Just standing amid the intricate artwork and designs prompts a longing for a time when life was simpler but also much more refined.

The room is just one piece among many that reflects the classical Greek influence on Roman art and culture — an influence that was nurtured by wealthy Pompeii patrons, who had artists travel to their lavish seaside villas to document, well, their lavishness.

For us in the present day, this richly rewarding exhibition is akin to stumbling across a treasure trove centuries after it was buried — which, of course, is exactly what happened along the Bay of Naples all those years ago.

One can only imagine the thrill of being among the first people to uncover traces of Herculaneum beginning in 1709 after it had lain covered in tons of volcanic debris for centuries — or for that matter, its sister city, Pompeii, which was accidentally rediscovered in 1748. The ancient works of art unearthed from the ashes of Vesuvius have captivated humans for centuries and affected the art, design and culture of Europe and North America. This exhibition reminds us that there is so much more to the legacy of Pompeii than the exploding volcano, immortalized for centuries in popular books and film.

Earl A. Powell III, director of the National Gallery of Art, said the exhibition makes for a particularly compelling attraction as it sits in the shadow of Washington buildings whose own architecture is inspired by the region of Pompeii. Even rooms in the U.S. Capitol are decorated in the Pompeian style.

“We are honored to bring this exhibition of exquisite archaeological treasures for a five-month stay in the nation’s capital, which is itself a monumental and living tribute to our Greek and Roman heritage,” Powell said.

German author Johann Wolfgang von Goethe neatly sums up Pompeii and its rich legacy in a quote that he uttered upon touring the ruins in 1787 — which is prominently posted on one wall of the exhibition: “There have been many disasters in this world, but few have given so much delight to posterity.”

“Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples through March 22 National Gallery of Art on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue, NW. For more information, please call (202) 737-4215 or visit www.nga.gov.


About the Author

Michael Coleman is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.