Roman Splendor in Pompeii

Art and artifacts reveal the elaborate maritime pleasure palaces established by Romans around the Bay of Naples

Pompeii, House of the Golden Bracelet, Garden Scene, 1st century BC - 1st century AD. (Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Ufficio Scavi, Pompei, Photography ⓒ Luciano Pedicini)

If you’ve been to the Italian coast south of Rome you probably want to return. Picturesque scenery, mild weather, fertile soil and the teeming sea provide a banquet for the senses, and the easy pace of life leaves plenty of time for reverie and romance. The ancient Greeks founded the colony of Neapolis (Naples) along this stretch of Mediterranean coast around 600 B.C.; half a millennium later, the colony was absorbed by the Roman Empire. By the first century B.C., the Bay of Naples, a single day’s sail from the hustling imperial capital, had become the favorite vacation spot of the Roman elite. The entire region from Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) in the north to Surrentum (Sorrento) in the south, embracing towns such as Pompeii and Herculaneum, was dotted with richly adorned villas of extraordinary splendor. The great Roman orator and statesman Cicero dubbed the Bay “the crater of all delights.”

The lifestyles that wealthy Romans enjoyed in their second homes is the subject of “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples,” an exhibition on view at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. through March 22. The show, which will also travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (May 3-October 4), includes 150 objects, mainly from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, but also on loan from site museums at Pompeii, Boscoreale, Torre Annunziata and Baia, as well as from museums and private collections in the United States and Europe. A number of items, including recently discovered murals and artifacts, have never been exhibited in the United States before.

Strolling among the marble busts, bronze statues, mosaics, silver tableware and colorful wall paintings, one cannot help but feel awed by the sophisticated taste and sumptuous décor that the imperial family and members of the aristocracy brought to the creation of their country houses. It’s almost enough to make one forget that it all came to an end with the devastating eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79.

We do not know how many of the estimated 20,000 residents of Pompeii and more than 4,000 inhabitants of Herculaneum perished, but we do know a great deal about how they lived.

In their maritime pleasure palaces the elite partook of opulence and relaxation as a respite from the business in which they engaged in the city. These retreats had everything one could desire to exercise the body, mind and spirit: gymnasia and swimming pools; columned courtyards with gardens watered by an aqueduct built by the emperor Augustus; baths warmed by fire or cooled with snow from the peak of Vesuvius; libraries in which to read and write; picture galleries and extravagantly painted dining rooms in which to entertain; loggias and terraces with sweeping vistas of the lush countryside and the resplendent sea.

High-ranking Romans followed the lead of Julius Caesar and the emperors Caligula, Claudius and Nero, all of whom owned houses in Baiae (modern Baia). Augustus vacationed in Surrentum and Pausilypon (Posillipo), and bought the island of Capreae (Capri); his son Tiberius built a dozen villas on the island and ruled the empire from there for the last decade of his life. Cicero had several homes around the bay (he retreated there to write), and the poet Virgil and the naturalist Pliny also had residences in the area.

The show begins with images of the owners of the villas—marble or bronze busts of emperors, members of their families and private individuals such as Gaius Cornelius Rufus, whose sculpted likeness was found in the atrium of his family’s house at Pompeii. A fresco of a seated woman lost in thought is believed to portray the matron of Villa Arianna at Stabiae, about three miles east of Pompeii. Another woman is shown admiring herself in a hand mirror that resembles one on view in an adjacent case. The back of the mirror on display is adorned with a relief of cupids fishing (perhaps to remind its user of love as she applied her makeup and donned gold jewelry similar to the bracelets and earrings that are also on view). Nearby are furnishings and accouterments such as silver wine cups embellished with hunting and mythological scenes; elaborate bronze oil lamps; figurines of muscular male deities; frescoes of opulent seaside villas; and representations of delicacies harvested from the sea—all reflecting the owners’ taste for luxury.

The next section of the exhibition is devoted to the Roman villas’ colonnaded courtyards and gardens. Frescoes depict lushly planted scenes populated by peacocks, doves, golden orioles and other birds and punctuated with stone statuary, birdbaths and fountains, examples of which are also on display. Many of these frescoes and carvings reference the fecundity of nature through depictions of wild animals (a life-size bronze boar attacked by two dogs, for instance) and of Dionysus, the god of wine, accompanied by his lascivious companions, the satyrs and maenads. Other garden decorations allude to more cerebral pursuits, such as a mosaic of Plato’s Academy convening in a sacred grove.

One of the highlights of the show is the frescoed walls of a dining room (triclinium) from Moregine, south of Pompeii. The frescoes were removed from the site in 1999–2001 to save them from damage due to flooding. In a coup de théâtre, three walls form a U-shaped reconstruction that allows visitors to be surrounded by murals showing Apollo, the Greek god of the arts, prophecy and medicine, and the Muses. The depiction of Apollo is an example of the most crucial theme of the exhibition: the Romans’ abiding taste for Greek culture. “They were lovers of what was to them—as it is to us—‘ancient’ Greece,” explains Carol Mattusch, an art history professor at George Mason University and guest curator of the exhibition. “They read Homeric poetry, they loved the comedies of Menander, they were followers of the philosopher Epicurus, and they collected art in the Greek style,” she says. Sometimes they even spoke and wrote Greek rather than Latin.

Cultivated Romans commissioned replicas of “old master” Greek statues, portraits of Greek poets, playwrights and philosophers, and frescoes picturing scenes from Greek literature and mythology. One of the frescoes in the exhibition depicts the classic group of Greek goddesses known as the Three Graces, and a beautifully rendered painting on marble shows a Greek battling a centaur. Also on view are a life-size marble statue of Aphrodite that emulates Greek art of the fifth century B.C. and a head of Athena that is a copy of a work by Phidias, the sculptor of the Parthenon. These expressions of Hellenic aesthetics and thought help explain why some say that the Romans conquered Greece, but Greek culture conquered Rome.


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