And alas, a volcano and the passage of time nearly conquered all. The cataclysmic eruption of Vesuvius entombed Herculaneum in a flow of lava and mud and spewed forth a mushroom-like cloud of debris that buried Pompeii in pumice stones and volcanic ash. Pliny the Younger wrote an eyewitness account of the eruption from across the bay in Misenum: “buildings were now shaking with violent shocks….darkness, blacker and denser than any night” and the sea “receded from the shore so that quantities of sea creatures were left stranded on dry sand” as flames burst from the volcanic cloud. His uncle Pliny the Elder, admiral of the imperial fleet based at Misenum and a naturalist, took a boat to get a closer look and died on the beach at Stabiae, reportedly asphyxiated by toxic fumes.
The final section of the exhibition is devoted to the volcano, its subsequent eruptions throughout the 17th century, and to the impact of the rediscovery and excavation of Pompeii and Herculaneum. The Bourbon kings that ruled Naples in the 18th century enlisted treasure hunters to tunnel into the ruins in search of statuary, ceramics, frescoes and metalwork. Their success led to later archaeological excavations that revealed nearly the entire town of Pompeii and the remains of Herculaneum and of country villas in the surrounding area.
The discoveries drew sightseers to the region and spawned an industry for reproductions of antiquities along with a Pompeiian revival style in the arts. An 1856 watercolor by the Italian artist Constantino Brumidi shows his design for the Pompeiian-style frescoes that grace a conference room in the United States Capitol, and an imaginary scene, painted in 1874 by the British artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, depicting a sculpture gallery from antiquity, pictures actual objects found in the excavations of Pompeii and Herculaneum, some of which are on view in the exhibition, including the spectacular carved marble table supports from Pompeii that served as models for desks in the National Post Office in Washington, D.C. Such objects epitomize the artistic excellence and fine craftsmanship the Romans demanded in the furnishing and adornment of their villas around the Bay of Naples. Leaving the exhibition, one’s thoughts turn inevitably to planning a trip to visit the archaeological sites near the Bay and experience first-hand the Mediterranean coast that has beckoned for millennia.
Jason Edward Kaufman is the Chief U.S. Correspondent for The Art Newspaper.