Published: October 28, 2008
The once-thriving communities of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae, buried by a mammoth volcano eruption in 79 AD and since excavated to reveal much about the daily lives, occupations, pastimes and art tastes of their people, surely rank among the wonders of the world. A recent visit to these resurrected towns, while underscoring the magnitude of the tragedy and the challenges of excavating the sites, offered rewarding visual insights into a long-lost society.
Today, some 2.5 million visitors annually walk the long, narrow stone streets of Pompeii, lined with remains of temples, shops, taverns, markets, a forum, an amphitheater, bordellos and homes of the rich and humble. Capacious villas, open for inspection, reveal frescoes, mosaics and other decorative artwork in varying stages of preservation. Many of the best works are now in museums in Naples and elsewhere.
Archaeological digging continues †one-third of Pompeii, for example, remains to be excavated †with the promise of unearthing structures and artifacts that will provide additional glimpses into the richness and breadth of social, cultural and artistic life, as well as the influence of classical Greece, on society in the region.
Those who built homes on coastal Campania between the Second Century BC and the First Century AD included the aristocracy and the “nouveau riche,” with lesser places housing bakers and other working people. In Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabia, the elite reveled in views of the sea and verdant landscape, and enjoyed lives of leisure. Their lives appear to have been filled with good food, entertainments †and lust. It is said that in Pompeii brothels outnumbered bakeries 35 to 32.
Some seaside villas covered tens of thousands of square feet and included living quarters, libraries, dining rooms, gymnasiums, baths, gardens, fountains and swimming pools. Villa residents entertained lavishly and admired each other’s art collections.
The area became an artistic center of considerable sophistication where the Roman elite favored traditional art based on Greek works, with exquisite interiors and exteriors decorated to evoke classical themes and styles. They blended Roman culture and Greek traditions.
The artists who embellished these structures were often Greeks attracted to the region by patrons ranging from the aristocracy, who demanded the most elaborate features in the grandest villas, to the urban elite, who emulated their superiors on a reduced scale. Homeowners demonstrated their affinity for the classical past with Greek-oriented surroundings, read Greek poems, attended Greek plays, discussed Greek philosophy, and maintained libraries stocked with texts by classical masters and adorned with portraits of them.
The titanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79 AD, was so unexpected that residents failed to recognize the disaster about to overtake them until it was too late. The eruption began with an ominous dark column rising from Vesuvius’s summit into the daytime sky, blocking out the sun and turning day into night. As the column rose, ash and stone rained down on the cities. Roofs collapsed on those who sought shelter in their homes or other buildings. Then, pyroclastic surges †waves of superheated gases and volcanic slurry †rolled rapidly over the region, burying †and preserving †everything. When the volcanic explosions subsided, an estimated 3,000 people had died, about ten percent of the area population.
Artists have tried over the years to depict fearsome eruptions of Mount Vesuvius. Among the best paintings are Joseph Wright of Derby’s “Vesuvius from Portici,” circa 1774‱776, and Pierre-Jacques Volaire’s “The Eruption of Mt Vesuvius,” 1777, each awesome, colorful and evocative. Pierre-Henri de Valenciennes’s spectacular “Eruption of Vesuvius,” 1813, depicts the distinguished scholar Pliny the Elder dying on the beach at Stabiae, as the mountain explodes and buildings topple behind him.
Fruits of decades of excavation and research are displayed in a fascinating exhibition, “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples,” on view at the National Gallery of Art through March 22. Featured are 150 exquisite treasures; paintings, sculptures, mosaics and decorative arts, all rescued from the ruins of villas in Pompeii and neighboring communities. This revelatory, collaborative international exhibition is part of the US-Italy Bilateral Agreement on Archaeology.
The show was organized by Carol Mattusch, professor of art history at George Mason University. She emphasizes the beauty of the antiquities in the exhibition and how it “links the enormous popularity of Greek traditions in Roman art to the resurgence of interest in classical antiquity that came about in the Eighteenth Century through the rediscovery of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae.”
Examination of the lifestyles and art suggests differences among these three communities. Pompeii was an active, sophisticated port city of around 20,000 with villas of the elite and modest stone cubbyholes for working people. Similarly, Herculaneum (modern Ercolano), some nine miles northwest of Pompeii, was a busy port that was home to about 6,000 residents, many of them wealthy. Stabiae (modern Castellamare di Stabia), by contrast, was not a town, but a “Roman Riviera,” consisting of a string of enormous villas situated above the shoreline and owned by the upper crust from Campania and Rome.
Charles VII, the Spanish Bourbon ruler of Naples, 1734‱759, funded early excavations in the area. His crews removed some 16 feet of loose ash covering Pompeii, revealing entire neighborhoods and opening up the ancient city to visitors.
The task was much harder at Herculaneum, rediscovered in 1738, because it was buried beneath up to 90 feet of cementlike material. When the great column of ash and pumice arising from Vesuvius collapsed, it triggered pyroclastic surges of gases and deadly flows of boiling volcanic mud, at temperatures estimated to have reached 932 degrees Fahrenheit, killing victims instantly.
For years it was thought that all residents of Herculaneum had escaped, until many skeletons, along with their coins and jewelry, were found preserved in the volcanic mud covering the town. Many fled to the seashore, taking shelter in boathouses that ultimately became their tombs. Chemical analysis of remains reveals that this cross-section of citizens had done little manual labor, indicating they were well-to-do, healthy and well-fed.
Before the eruption, Stabiae consisted of sumptuous Roman villas lining a ridge 160 feet above the sea. These were places not only of ostentation and relaxation, but for entertaining and negotiating business and political matters. Epitomizing the elegance of interior Stabian decor is a small but elaborate fresco, “View of a harbor town” that gives an almost impressionistic view of a lively port scene.
With Italian government support, excavation and interpretation are coordinated by the Restoration of Ancient Stabiae Foundation (RAS), with US headquarters in Washington, D.C. The RAS runs the nearby Vesuvian International Institute for Archaeology and Humanities that houses visiting scholars and students, holds educational programs, raises money and plans the ongoing excavation work. “It’s the most important archaeological project in Europe,” one official said.
Supplementing the continuing excavation projects, the brand new Museum of Virtual Archaeology in Ercolano uses the latest technology to recall the scene then and now around the Bay of Naples.
Although discovered in the Eighteenth Century, the long-buried communities are only partially excavated. Along with being the most fully cleared site, the drama surrounding the sudden demise of Pompeii has made the town the most heavily visited, and along with Vesuvius, an icon of the destructive potential of forces of nature. “The lava-paved streets, well-preserved homes and shops, and still colorful painted signs and graffiti evoke a population in pursuit of lives that seem in some respects remarkably like modern ones,” says curator Mattusch.
The saga of Pompeii prompted Karl Briullov’s huge painting, “The Last Day of Pompeii,” 1828, showing terrified Pompeiians, flaming lava and falling statues, and inspired Sir Edward G.E. Bulwer-Lytton’s celebrated novel, The Last Days of Pompeii , 1834.
The National Gallery exhibition offers glimpses into the tastes of residents of opulent villas or elegant houses in the form of marble or bronze likenesses of members of the royal family and of their own families. Among the standouts are marble busts of Julius Caesar, Nero and Emperor Augustus. From a house in Herculaneum is a full-length, exquisitely carved marble of a daughter of powerful local leader.
The interior furnishings and décor of villas and luxurious townhouses †gold jewelry, silver objects, tables and chairs, wall frescoes, floor mosaics and mythological and seascape illustrations⁰rovide vivid clues to lives of luxury. A gold chain with a snakehead clasp and a gold spiral bracelet in the form of a serpent, unearthed in a Pompeii house, reflect the popular belief that such creatures brought good luck. An expressive bronze statue of “Venus (Aphrodite),” from Herculaneum, with copper and silver jewelry and inlays, evokes a protective deity.
A Pompeii atrium yielded a pair of ornately carved marble supports for an offering table. It appears in “A Sculpture Gallery,” 1874, painted by British antiquities collector Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema.
A brightly colored mosaic glass bowl, discovered in the region, reflects both skill and the popularity of glass works. A slate panel from the wall of a Pompeiian house depicting an ecstatic “Dancing satyr and maenad” puts one in mind of Maxfield Parrish.
Roman wall frescoes suggest the contexts in which homeowners chose to present themselves. “A female painter at work,” from a Pompeii house, shows an artist painting a male model. Still life paintings of birds, fish and fruits were also popular wall decorations.
Pompeiians decorated their gardens with fountains, waterfalls, fishing ponds and swimming pools. Herms (stone pillars topped by busts of statesmen and intellectuals) were popular garden sculptures, especially those depicting Dionysos, the god of fertility and life force. “Fountain figure of a fisherman,” an animated bronze of a happy fisherman, was sited to be visible from a Pompeiian street.
Art collections in the doomed communities featured works created by Greek artists who filled orders for paintings, statues and busts in the Greek artistic tradition. Sculptures evoking Greek styles, such as a bronze “Bust of kourous/Apollo” and a bronze “Girl fastening her peplos (Peplophoros)” (both from Herculaneum), were popular ornaments. Frescoes of classical figures, such as the Three Graces and Theseus, were also prevalent.
A striking mosaic from a Pompeii villa, “Plato’s Academy,” showing the great man with six bearded classical scholars, reflects Roman interest in Greek philosophy and intellectual life. A lively equestrian bronze of Alexander the Great suggests admiration for his military leadership and intellectual interests.
As the discoveries at Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae became known, they had a substantial impact on Nineteenth Century European culture in the form of “Pompeiian” architecture, design and painting. Architects designed Greek-inspired buildings with interiors that recalled villas in the buried cities. As portrayed in an 1846 painting, German art historian Lewis Gruner designed the color-filled décor for the Garden Pavilion at Buckingham Palace with many “Vesuvian” features, from frescoes to floor mosaics.
A number of paintings sought to recreate Pompeiian interiors, sometimes occupied by figures in Victorian clothing, as in Luigi Bazzani’s “A Pompeiian Interior,” 1882. In 1905, Danish artist Josef Theodore Hansen painted archaeologically correct views of a Pompeii house, with cracks in the mosaic floor and faded frescoes. Equally accurate were paintings by another Danish artist, Christen Kobke, who in the 1840s depicted the Forum at Pompeii and an entryway to the city in precise, accurate detail that replicates the way the sites look today.
Pompeiian designs also inspired objects ranging from English serpent bracelets to German bowls and cups adorned with mythological figures. Having absorbed the Pompeiian tradition in Rome, Constantino Brumidi brought those concepts to his mid-Nineteenth Century designs for the interior of the US Capitol, notably the Naval Affairs Committee. The walls, painted “Pompeiian” blue, feature floating figures of young women in Vesuvian-style garments and, on the ceiling, classical sea gods in chariots drawn by swans.
Historian Will Durant once wrote that “Civilization exists by geologic consent.” As the National Gallery exhibition documents, the silver lining in the tragedy that overtook those communities is that the volcanic outpouring miraculously preserved so much of an important ancient society. We can always learn from the past, and as curator Mattusch concludes, “The finds continue today wherever archaeologists are at work in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, their discoveries renewing our astonishment at the magnificent trappings of Roman otium [leisure] around the bay.”
The 365-page catalog, with essays by Mattusch and other authorities, is printed by the National Gallery in association with Thames & Hudson; it sells for $60 hardcover and $40 softcover.
The National Gallery of Art is on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW. For information, 202-737-215 or www.nga.gov .
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