Art: From the ashes of Vesuvius

Preview for an exhibition, it seems.
From the Philadelphia Inquirer

Art still lives in the places the volcano buried. Some will be shown this fall in D.C.

First of two articles

POMPEII, Italy – This is a dead city, buried more than 19 centuries ago by ash and pumice spewing from Mount Vesuvius, and now about 80 percent dug out. Herculaneum is even deader, buried more deeply under nearly 100 feet of fossilized volcanic mud and lava. So far, less than half of it has been exposed.

Every year more than 2.5 million tourists flock to these once-thriving Roman cities. What do they see? In Pompeii, empty streets, buildings open to the sky, their upper stories often long collapsed, broken columns, several open-air theaters.

There’s very little shade, practically no greenery. In the broiling summer heat, the only respite is a modern air-conditioned snack bar inserted incongruously into the landscape of broken, dun-colored masonry. Yet there is life here (besides tourists, of course) if one knows where to look for it.

For instance, the thresholds of several houses are decorated with mosaics of dogs – one even bears the Latin inscription cave canem, beware of the dog. On another street, a public water fountain once fed by a 65-mile-long aqueduct sports a sculpture of a stone head; the water poured from the mouth.

Hundreds of Romans died in Vesuvius’ eruption. Later excavators removed most of the artifacts to places like the archaeological museum in Naples, 15 miles to the north.

But they didn’t remove all the art, the mosaics and particularly the wall paintings. Many of these remain in place, often cracked and abraded but still as evocative of their time as they were exactly 1,929 years ago today, when the sky began to rain ash and stones.

It’s this art that invests Pompeii, the much smaller Herculaneum, and several other sites on the coast south of Naples with a human presence. The artists and artisans who composed the elaborate floor mosaics from thousands of tiny tesserae remain anonymous, but their work endures to enchant those visitors who take the time to examine what they created.

I have long admired Roman wall paintings, usually referred to as frescoes even though they were painted on dry, not damp, plaster. It’s not just the intense colors – the Romans favored a dusky red derived from the mercury compound cinnabar – but also the delicacy and ethereality of the figures.

Last year, when the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened its expanded Greek and Roman galleries, visitors encountered two spectacular reconstructed rooms from villas near Pompeii. More than the objects and sculptures, these vividly evoked a feeling of time and place.

A similar experience will open in Washington on Oct. 19 at the National Gallery of Art with a lavish exhibition called “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples.” The show was organized by the National Gallery in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and with the cooperation of several Italian cultural agencies.

Through more than 150 objects, many lent by the archaeological museum in Naples, the show aims to convey the luxurious ambience of aristocratic Roman life around the Bay of Naples. One highlight is a reconstructed dining room from a villa at Moregine, south of Pompeii, that will give visitors a taste of Roman wall-painting at its most elegant.

It is these paintings on plaster, typically seven layers thick, and the extensive mosaics that often cover whole floors that most effectively convey Roman taste in the ruined cities and villas. The Naples museum abounds with splendid examples of both, including a huge mosaic, partially destroyed, that depicts Alexander the Great fighting the Persians.

The Alexander mosaic comes from the House of the Faun in Pompeii; if you go there, you’ll find a replica in the courtyard. The villa takes its name from a small bronze sculpture of a faun near the entrance. The sculpture is another reproduction; the original is in Naples.

It matters not, because by themselves these two works impart a distinctive spirit to the rambling ruin of a villa. For instance, the mosaic speaks to the strong influence of Greek and Hellenistic culture in the Naples region (the city was founded by Greeks as Neapolis).

Another villa, the House of Menander, is named for a small portrait mural of the eponymous Greek dramatist. Besides affirming the owner’s admiration for Greek civilization, the mural also points up a striking contrast between Roman sculpture and painting.

The sculpture tends to be assertively masculine and often martial, especially when executed at heroic scale. The painting, like the Menander mural, often features women, especially goddesses, and motifs from nature. It’s typically more delicate, refined and poetic. Colors can be bold – cinnabar red, ochre and black tend to dominate – but line is always graceful and lyrical.

This suggests that in their public spaces like Pompeii’s forum the Romans used art to declaim imperial power and majesty, while in their domestic spaces they preferred decoration that was softer, sometimes whimsical and more feminine in spirit.

This is true, too, for the mosaics, which are usually composed in black and white and often in geometric patterns. When they opted for realism, the designers excelled in marine motifs. One of the most dazzling mosaics in the archaeological museum is a dense conglomeration of sea creatures, all presumably native to the waters off Pompeii.

As one expects, the villas are more elaborately decorated than the ordinary “rowhouses” that line Pompeii’s narrow streets. In some of the larger villas at locations closer to Vesuvius, such as Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae, whole rooms have survived – damaged, and their colors somewhat faded, but their glory still impressive.

Rich Romans seem to have abhorred blank spaces. In one villa, walls in the servant areas are covered with patterns of alternating diagonal lines that look very much like Jasper Johns’ Corpse and Mirror abstractions.

It’s always preferable to see architectural art in its original context, which one can do by visiting a half-dozen archaeological sites near Vesuvius. When this isn’t practical, the best alternative is an exhibition such as “Pompeii and the Roman Villa.”

Because it focuses on the rich and high-born, it doesn’t present a comprehensive picture of Roman culture in 79 A.D., but it does allow us to appreciate the Romans’ remarkable aesthetic vocabulary, preserved by volcanic ash and mud for nearly two millennia.


Next week: Luxurious villas reveal a different dimension of Roman life and the eruption.

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