Treasures in the Ashes

Pompeii Tragedy Preserved Romans’ Decadent Life

Posted October 27, 2008 at 2:06pm

The eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79 was undoubtedly a tragedy for the wealthy Romans who had crowded the southern Italian coastline with their villas and towns. Many were killed by lava, smoke and fire before they had a chance to flee, and those who did survive were forced to abandon their seaside homes overlooking the Bay of Naples.

But that volcano preserved for us in incredible detail

an entire culture, with its reverence for Greek classicism, its fondness for the good life and its breathtaking beauty.

And now the National Gallery of Art brings us an exquisite, tantalizing taste of this world in a new exhibit, “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples.” We’ve got a stop on the grand tour right here in our own front yard.

It’s true that there is still something to be said for viewing the ruins and ancient avenues of Pompeii under the bright Campagnian sun, but it’s also true that the tour provides a different sort of perspective, carpeted, cool and serene. The National Gallery has created an elegant exhibit, with each of the 150 items seemingly carefully selected.

It’s the best of the best: For instance, a mosaic depicts Plato’s academy, perfectly preserved and taken from the Pompeii villa of T. Siminius Stephanus, each colorful mosaic piece as tiny as a newborn’s pinky fingernail. Also, don’t miss the vivid red walls of a dining room, excavated from under water in the town of Moregine on the Sarno River south of Pompeii. Or the bronze sculptures, including one dramatic scene showing a boar being attacked by dogs.

There’s even a Capitol connection in the Pompeii show: Some of the fresco art depicts maenads, Greek women who worshiped Dionysus and who were kind of the Paris Hiltons of Greek mythology, rather wild and sexual. Those crazy maenads were models for the 1856 frescoes Constantino Brumidi painted on the walls of corridors and rooms in the Capitol. The maenads appear in a room originally designated as the Naval Affairs conference room; today these hints of Pompeii adorn the Senate Appropriations Committee room. In our country’s version, the creatures are more patriotic, waving star-studded flags.

Many of the items in the Pompeii exhibit have never before been seen in the United States, and some are more recent discoveries.

Guest curator Carol Mattusch, an art history professor at George Mason University, said the Bay of Naples region became the vacation hot spot for the well-to-do of Rome. In fact, she said, “The region became so overbuilt in ancient times that you could hardly find your way down to the beach.”

Along the water, some of the more sumptuous villas could cover as much as 65,000 square feet. (For a little perspective, today’s McMansions rarely get larger than 6,000 square feet.) These villas had to be big enough for the wealthy Romans to entertain large numbers of guests, and to provide kitchens, baths and garden areas, Mattusch said.

One reason the exhibit can use so many artifacts from Pompeii, Mattusch said, is because Pompeii has no museum of its own for displaying these items and many of them would otherwise be in storage.

Many other items come from the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Naples’ archeological museum. That museum, in contrast to the show at the National Gallery, includes an almost overwhelming collection of artifacts from the Bay of Naples and Pompeii, in addition to other ancient treasures. Sadly, the U.S. show omitted one of the most curious and entertaining elements of the Naples museum, and one that really paints a vividly graphic picture of the ancient Romans’ sense of life and sense of humor: an adults-only “secret cabinet” that causes even relatively sophisticated people to blush at the ancient bawdy sculptures, art and erotica on display.

Of course, a show at the Smithsonian is going to have to be family-friendly. Children, in fact, will enjoy seeing a replica of the ancient mosaic of a guard dog and the words “Cave Canem” — beware of the dog — on the floor, as well as a digital reconstruction of a mosaic with marine creatures.

To add to the exhibit, the National Gallery’s Garden Café will offer dishes from chef Arturo Iengo of Ristorante Pascalucci in Benevento, Italy, and chef Fabio Salvatore from Cafe Milano in Georgetown.

The exhibit, in the East Building, runs through March 22.