Dionysos with kantharos and Maenad, 1st century AD, Vesuvian Region/Herculaneum, fresco, 45 x 45 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography © Luciano Pedicini.
Plato’s academy, Mosaic from Pompeii (Villa of T. Siminius Stephanus), Second style. Early 1st century B.C., Inv. 124545, Naples, National Archaeological Museum.
Woman seated beneath a coffered ceiling, 1st century BC-1st century AD, Stabiae, Villa Arianna, fresco, 53 x 49 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography © Luciano Pedicini.
Seaside villa, probably 1st century AD, Stabiae, fresco, 25 x 25 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography © Luciano Pedicini.
Peacock on a garden fence, 1st century BC-1st century AD, Pompeii, fresco, 115 x 107 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography © Luciano Pedicini.
Pompeii, Regio IV, Insula Occidentalis, The Three Graces, 1st century BC-1st century AD, Fresco, 53 x 47 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography © Luciano Pedicini.
Floating Maenad, 1st century BC-1st century AD, Pompeii, House of the Ship, fresco, 66 x 52 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography © Luciano Pedicini.
Profile portrait of a woman, 1st century BC-1st century AD, Perhaps Stabiae or Herculaneum, fresco, 52 x 39 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography © Luciano Pedicini.
Venus (Aphrodite), 1st century BC-1st century AD, Herculaneum, bronze with copper and silver jewelry and inlays, 17.5 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography © Luciano Pedicini.
Girl fastening her peplos (Peplophoros), 1st century BC-1st century AD, Herculaneum, Villa dei Papiri, bronze, 150 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography © Luciano Pedicini.
4th and Constitution Avenue NW
Pompeii and the Roman Villa:
Art and the Culture Around the Bay of Naples
October 19, 2008-March 22, 2009
Pompeii and the Roman Villa presents some 150 works of sculpture, painting, mosaic, and luxury arts, most of them created before the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 AD. They include recent discoveries on view in the U.S. for the first time and celebrated finds from earlier excavations. Exquisite objects from richly decorated villas on the shores of the Bay of Naples and from houses in nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum reveal the breadth and richness of cultural and artistic life, as well as the influence of classical Greece on Roman art and culture in this region.
Before Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, the region of Campania around the Bay of Naples was an artistic center of great sophistication. Archaeological excavations have uncovered not only Pompeii, Herculaneum, and other towns near Vesuvius, but also the remains of luxurious seaside villas built for prominent Romans. They were drawn to the bay by its beauty and thermal baths — a legacy of its volcanic geology — as well as the lingering Greek culture around Naples, a former Greek colony. The bay’s popularity as a resort for vacationing Romans brought extraordinary wealth to the area. Adding to its economic well-being was the emperor Augustus’ designation of the port of Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli, north of Naples) as the Italian entry point for the enormous shipments of grain from the province of Egypt. The wealth, coupled with the great demand for works of art to adorn the interior spaces and gardens of the vast maritime villas, attracted artists from far and wide. Many of them would also have found clients among the well-to-do townspeople of Pompeii and Herculaneum who emulated the lifestyles of the powerful elite. The art collections of both villa owners and residents in nearby towns demonstrate shared artistic tastes and cultural ideals, particularly a reverence for classical Greece, seen as a Golden Age.
Roman aristocrats began constructing villas on the bay in the second century bc. They retreated to these country estates, especially in spring and summer, to enjoy their leisure (otium) and escape from the pressures of business (negotium) in Rome. Over the course of the next two centuries ruling families arrived as well. Julius Caesar, the first emperor Augustus, and the emperors Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero all had residences on the bay. The presence of the imperial families led to increasing numbers of villas for Romans eager to further their careers through access to the political elite in more relaxed social circumstances than was possible in Rome. So many villas were built along the bay that the ancient historian Strabo said they looked like “one continuous city.”
The sumptuous villas had extensive gardens and elegant interior courtyards, some large enough to enclose a swimming pool. Their façades were lined with colonnaded walkways that offered the owners sweeping vistas of the sea, reached by terraces leading down to private harbors for pleasure boats. The houses forming the dense city blocks of Pompeii and Herculaneum turned a blank wall to the busy streets but nonetheless shared certain features with the seaside villas. In both, rooms were arranged around an atrium, which opened to the sky to bring light to the interior and allow rainwater to collect in a square basin (impluvium) set into the floor. Some townspeople emulated features of villa architecture on a smaller scale, adding colonnaded (peristyle) courtyards, baths, and interior gardens to their houses. According to Vitruvius, writing in the first century AD, the residences of “men of rank who, from holding offices and magistracies, have social obligations to their fellow citizens, [need] lofty entrance courts … and most spacious atriums and peristyles … The rules on these points will hold not only for houses in town, but also for those in the country …” (On Architecture 6.5.2 – 3).
The interiors of the villas and many Pompeian houses were lavishly decorated, their walls sheathed with colorful frescoes representing mythological scenes, landscapes with views of the bay and the villas lining its shores, and still lifes celebrating local delicacies from the sea and the land made fertile by its rich volcanic soil. Furnishings included marble tables and bronze lampstands, some even in the form of statues. In the grander houses, diners drank wine from silver cups decorated with olives, vine leaves, or famous episodes from familiar myths. Sculpted portraits of family members or ancestors, set up in reception areas, would have reminded guests of the lineage of their hosts.
Gardens in and around the villas were accented with aviaries, fountains, and marble or bronze figurines that spurted water into pools and watercourses. Houses in Pompeii were generally much smaller, but townspeople shared the villa owners’ love of gardens. Even in modest houses, a little garden might be tucked into the courtyard and embellished with sculpture. If the spaces were too tight for actual gardens, plants could be painted on the walls. The painted gardens visually expanded small ones, as in the so-called House of the Golden Bracelet where frescoes of flowering shrubs, birds, and fountains adjoined the real garden behind the house.
Garden sculpture often represents rustic subjects, including wild animals, or Dionysos, god of wine, with his rowdy entourage of satyrs and maenads. Such works suggest the wilder side of nature while taming it for the owners’ pleasure. Portraits of Greek thinkers and writers were also set up in gardens, which, like libraries, were places for contemplation and learning — echoes of the pastoral setting of Plato’s Academy, depicted in a mosaic from a house in Pompeii that shows Plato surrounded by philosophers at his school in a grove outside Athens.
Legacy of Greece The region around the Bay of Naples had been colonized by Greeks as early as the eighth century bc. The city of Neapolis (modern Naples) was founded around 600 bc and did not become a Roman municipality until 89 bc. Like other cities around the bay, it still retained its Greek character after being absorbed into the Roman sphere. The Greek flavor was evident even in the streets where some Romans sported Greek dress rather than the togas worn in Rome.
The Roman conquest of Greece in 146 bc spurred a fascination with the country’s illustrious past as well as the looting of masterpieces of Greek art, which victorious Roman generals brought back to Italy to adorn public and private spaces at home. The reverence for Greece, viewed as the repository of culture, beauty, and wisdom, culminated in the emperor Augustus’ intent to revive during his reign (27 BC-AD 14) the glories of ancient Athens under the leadership of Pericles in the fifth century BC. In the words of the poet Horace, “Captive Greece took captive her savage conqueror and brought civilization to the rustic Latins.”
Greek influence pervaded the decor of the villas around the Bay of Naples and the houses of the elite in Pompeii and Herculaneum. For their owners, knowledge of Greek culture was a status symbol and mark of refinement that was reflected in the works of art they acquired. A portrait of Homer or reliefs depicting episodes from the Trojan War conveyed their appreciation of Greek history. Busts of the fourth-century BC playwright Menander suggested their enthusiasm for Athenian theater; and likenesses of the Greek philosopher Epicurus, who believed that pleasure is inherently good and leads to happiness, attested to their familiarity with his hedonistic teachings.
Dining rooms or triclinia — so called because they contained three couches on which diners reclined while eating — were often painted with scenes from Greek mythology. Excavations at the site of Moregine, south of Pompeii, have uncovered an intriguing building complex, perhaps a villa, perhaps an inn or the headquarters of a business. Frescoed on the walls of one of its dining rooms are images of the god Apollo, patron of the liberal arts, flanked by the muses. Their presence would have reminded guests of the pleasures of intellectual and creative conversation, the ideal at any Roman banquet.
Many Romans living near the Bay of Naples were avid art collectors who prized copies after Greek “old masters.” So many versions of The Three Graces survive that they must stem from a famous prototype, now lost. The portrait of an athlete from the Villa dei Papiri near Herculaneum echoes a fourth-century BC sculpture by Lysippos, while the statue of a youth from a Pompeian house harks back to Polykleitos’ Doryphoros (Spearbearer) of c. 440 BC. The owners of such works must have taken pride in possessing sculptures that recall two of the most renowned artists of ancient Greece.
Some of the finest works of art were carved in imported Greek marble; others were ordered from Greece or created by Greek artists who had moved to the Bay of Naples, attracted by the opportunities afforded by the wealthy patrons there. But most collectors would have relied on local artists familiar with Greek models. The works of art they commissioned between the first century BC and the first century AD, either for their own collections or for public display, were made in styles from various periods. A statue of Aphrodite from Puteoli reflects the influence of classical Greek art of the later fifth century BC in her remote expression and the virtuoso handling of her garment, which falls in delicate, rippling folds. Like the marble female torso from the same site, the figure’s transparent drapery clings to her body, revealing a clear understanding of human anatomy. A more severe bronze statue of a young woman from the Villa dei Papiri, with heavy drapery hanging in broad vertical folds, takes inspiration from an earlier phase in the development of the
Several works of sculpture found in villas or houses around the Bay of Naples recall the even earlier archaic style current in Greece in the sixth century BC. The bronze statue of a youth from the House of Julius Polybius in Pompeii echoes the archaic style in its stiff frontal pose and stylized hair arranged in tight curls resembling corkscrews or snail shells. Did Roman collectors think that such works were actual Greek statues from the sixth century BC or did they know that they were buying contemporary versions of antiques? Probably most were content with modern adaptations, but an archaistic bust of a youth suggests that some buyers might have been fooled. Found in the Villa dei Papiri, the sculpture may be a forgery, cleverly designed with an irregularly shaped lower edge to give the impression that the bust is a fragment broken off from a full-length ancient Greek statue. Regardless of whether collectors believed such works to be ancient or modern, their collections reveal that the Roman reverence for the Greek past led them to acquire works representing the art of Greece in all its variety as they adopted Greek culture as their own.
The Greek-inspired works of art displayed in the villas and town houses around the bay took on new meanings in their Roman context. Monumental images of gods, goddesses, or heroes such as Alexander the Great were scaled down to become tabletop ornaments. A statue evoking Apollo transformed the god of learning and the arts into a lampstand, shedding light, both literal and figurative, on Roman gatherings. In Greece statues of gods and goddesses were set up in sanctuaries and public places, but in Pompeii a sculpture of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, was installed in a colonnade around a domestic garden; formerly public art became private.
Destruction and Discovery The eruption of Vesuvius in ad 79 brought nearly all this to an end. From a villa at Misenum at the northern tip of the bay, Pliny the Younger saw the cloud rising from Vesuvius and, soon after, wrote two letters recording the event, “Its general appearance can best be expressed as being like a pine tree, for it rose to a great height on a sort of trunk and then split off into branches. I imagine … it was thrust upwards by the first blast … broad sheets of fire and leaping flames blazed at several points … The buildings were now shaking with violent shocks and seemed to be swaying to and fro as if they were torn from their foundations.” In the second letter he wrote, “Soon afterwards the cloud sank down to earth and covered the sea … We were terrified to see everything changed, buried deep in ashes like snowdrifts” (Ep. 6.16, 6.20). When it was over, Herculaneum and all but the highest parts of Pompeii lay beneath tons of volcanic debris. Cities farther away were largely unaffected; the discovery of the monumental Aphrodite at Capua shows that artistic patronage continued at a very high level in parts of the region well after the eruption. But the towns and villas in the shadow of Vesuvius were abandoned and mostly forgotten until their discovery in the eighteenth century.
Systematic excavations began at Herculaneum in 1738 and ten years later at Pompeii. In the following decades, archaeologists tunneling through solidified mud at Herculaneum found the Villa dei Papiri and brought to light more than eighty statues and about one thousand ancient papyri inscribed with Greek texts. News of the discovery of the ancient cities spread throughout Europe. Curious tourists flocked to the Bay of Naples, attracted also by bursts of volcanic activity from Vesuvius. Illustrated publications documenting the finds spawned a rage for antique styles, and reproductions of antiquities became a major industry that continued throughout the nineteenth century. Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema and other artists specialized in paintings such as A Sculpture Gallery, 1874, in which Pompeian antiquities are illustrated in exacting detail. The ancient works of art excavated (and still being found) at the buried cities and villas along the Bay of Naples affected the art, design, and culture of Europe and eventually North America, where even rooms in the United States Capitol were decorated in the Pompeian style.
Exhibition Highlights In the first century BC, the picturesque Bay of Naples became a favorite retreat for vacationing emperors, senators, and other prominent Romans. They built lavish seaside villas in the shadow of Mt. Vesuvius where they could indulge in absolute leisure, read and write, exercise, enjoy their gardens and the views, and entertain friends.
Artists, who came to this region from as far away as Greece, created sculpture, paintings, mosaics, and luxury arts to adorn the lavish seaside villas. Many of them would also have found patrons in the nearby towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum (modern Ercolano) who emulated the lifestyles of the powerful elite. Julius Caesar, Caligula, Claudius, and Nero owned seaside villas in Baiae (modern Baia); the emperor Augustus vacationed in Surrentum (modern Sorrento), Capreae (modern Capri), and Pausilypon (modern Posillipo); and the lawyer Cicero had homes at Cumae (modern Cuma) and Puteoli (modern Pozzuoli) as well as in Pompeii.
Drawn from the collections of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples, and from site museums at Pompeii, Boscoreale, Torre Annunziata, and Baia, as well as museums and private collections in the United States and Europe, the exhibition is organized in five sections:
Patrons at Home: Proprietors and other inhabitants of the maritime villas or the well-appointed houses of Pompeii and surrounding towns collected works of art that included marble or bronze portraits of members of the ruling families and individualized private portraits. They are installed here with interior furnishings from the residences, such as frescoes that depict seaside villas, marine delicacies from the Bay of Naples, and intimate genre scenes. Silver wine cups decorated with episodes from the Labors of Hercules, a mirror with a lively scene of cupids fishing, vessels of colorful glass or inlaid obsidian, and gold jewelry reflect the owners’ taste for luxury.
Courtyards and Gardens: Bronze statues and fountains, marble sculptures and reliefs, and frescoes decorated the colonnaded courtyards at the heart of Roman villas and houses. Much of the garden sculpture depicts wild animals and Dionysos, god of wine, theater, and nature, with his entourage of satyrs and maenads. Frescoes portray peacocks, swallows, magpies, and other birds as well as flowers and various flowering shrubs, including roses, laurel, and oleander. Evoking the setting of Plato’s Academy, which is portrayed in a mosaic in this section, gardens were also places for reflection and learning.
Moregine: A highlight of the exhibition is a dining room from the site of Moregine on the Sarno River South of Pompeii. Discovered in 1959 and further excavated in 1999-2001, the walls from its flooded dining rooms were removed in order to preserve their frescoes. The exhibition features three dining-room walls decorated with images of Apollo, god of the arts, with the muses, shown floating against a red background and framed by elegant architectural fantasies. Ancient Roman dining rooms were often located to offer diners a view of the garden, and a living garden in the exhibition echoes a nearby fresco from the House of the Golden Bracelet.
The Legacy of Greece: The Roman reverence for classical Greece and taste for antiquities characterized the art collections formed by wealthy Romans. Cicero’s correspondence with his art dealer reveals a burgeoning market. Patrons commissioned works of art in the full range of Greek styles, including a marble statue of Artemis in an archaic style and a monumental sculpture of Aphrodite that echoes the classical style. A portrait of Homer, an equestrian statuette of Alexander the Great, and a relief depicting scenes from the Trojan War exemplify the Roman appreciation of works representing Greek subjects and themes.
Rediscovery and Reinvention: Eighteenth-century excavations and the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum had a major impact on the art and culture of the modern world. During the 1700s, the Bourbon excavations yielded vast numbers of antiquities, and a subsequent publication, the illustrated volumes of Delle antichità di Ercolano, refueled the rage for classical antiquities. Reproductions of the antiquities grew into a major industry. Pompeiana soon permeated travel writing and affected the art, interior design, and culture of Europe and finally North America. Great houses in Europe and eventually even rooms in the United States Capitol were decorated in the Pompeian style, characterized by paintings of architectural fantasies or maenads floating against brightly colored backgrounds.
Carol Mattusch, Mathy Professor of Art History at George Mason University, is the guest curator of the exhibition.
The fully illustrated catalogue for Pompeii and the Roman Villa is written by Mattusch, with essays by Mary Beard, professor of classics, University of Cambridge; Bettina Bergmann, Helene Philips Herzig '49 Professor of Art, Mount Holyoke College; Stefano De Caro, Direttore Generale per i Beni Archeologici, Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali, Roma; Professor Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, Soprintendente, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei; and Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities, The J. Paul Getty Museum. Published by the Gallery in association with Thames and Hudson, the 384-page catalogue includes 312 color and 53 black-and-white illustrations. It will be available from the Gallery Shops for $60.00 (hardcover) and $40.00 (softcover) in late October 2008. To order, call (800) 697-9350 or (202) 842-6002; fax (202) 789-3047.
Pompeii and the Roman Villa is organized by the National Gallery of Art, Washington, in association with the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, with the cooperation of the Direzione Regionale per i Beni Culturali e Paesaggistici della Campania and the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.
Relief of an Athlete with a hoop, 1st century BC-1st century Ad, Stabiae, Villa San Marco, Stucco, 170 cm, Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Photography © Luciano Pedicini.