Wednesday, May 6, 2009


Version at BMCR home site
Carol C. Mattusch (ed.), Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples. National Gallery of Art, October 19, 2008-March 22, 2009; Los Angeles County Museum of Art, May 3-October 4, 2009. Washington: National Gallery of Art, 2008. Pp. xvi, 365. ISBN 9780894683534. $40.00 (pb). Contributors: Mary Beard, Bettina Bergmann, Stefano De Caro, Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, and Kenneth Lapatin
Reviewed by John R. Clarke, University of Texas at Austin

The work of this well-designed and beautifully illustrated catalogue is to provide a context for two kinds of objects displayed in the accompanying exhibition: 116 paintings, sculptures, and small finds from the region buried by Vesuvius and another 40 documenting the response to rediscovery--a process that began in the mid-eighteenth century and continues to the present. Carol Mattusch takes on the lion's share of this work, providing introductory essays as well as the scholarly catalogue entries for each object. Most of the contributors' essays have a broad focus on the entire region of the Bay of Naples: Stefano De Caro on villas; Kenneth Lapatin on luxury items; Mary Beard on art collections; and Pietro Giovanni Guzzo on archaeological work. One essay, Bettina Bergmann's "Staging the Supernatural: Interior Gardens of Pompeian Houses," focuses exclusively on Pompeii. Scholarly notes appear at the end of the volume, along with a brief bibliography, glossary, and index. I first consider the essays, ending with an assessment of Mattusch's catalogue.

De Caro's essay reviews the archaeological and literary evidence for the Roman villa on the Bay of Naples and considers its significance for the development of urban domestic architecture. He follows the history of the development of the type citing well-known literary sources and ending with the phenomenon first articulated by Paul Zanker, of "imitation" villas at Pompeii.1 He peppers his essay with tantalizing tidbits of information, fruit of his forty years of work in the region; for instance, we learn that an octagonal diaeta at Oplontis (Villa A, room 78) boasted walls sheathed in precious woods, and that splendid glass-paste mosaics paved the bottom of the swimming pool at the recently discovered villa at Massalubrense.

"Luxus," the title of Lapatin's essay, reminds the readers repeatedly of the price of luxury for the Roman elite, both because it cost so much and because paying outrageous sums for luxury exposed the buyer to moral criticism. By the late first century B.C.--and especially in their villas around the Bay of Naples where conspicuous consumption attracted less criticism than at Rome--the super-rich indulged themselves. To the literary evidence decrying Roman indulgence in the consumption of costly exotic fish, Lapatin asks us to consider the famous "aquarium" mosaics (e.g., Pompeii VIII.2.16), as well as the food remains found in the excavation of the Roman villa at Epano Skala (Mytilene, Lesbos). There is better evidence for furniture (though none for those items made from precious citrus-wood), including elaborate couches and strongboxes. Above all, we have ample evidence for objects for personal adornment (gold jewelry; engraved gems; pearls); in this connection Lapatin states that "of the 1,134 human bodies found in Herculaneum, Pompeii, and its suburbs, and nearby Oplontis, just under 10 percent wore or carried jewelry." Lapatin cites gem lore (mostly from Pliny NH 37) and methods of gem cutting, analyzing a variety of objects from various collections, some appearing in the exhibition.

Bergmann's essay, entitled "Staging the Supernatural: Interior Gardens of Pompeian Houses," examines the mixed-media gardens that combine painted representations of gardens and garden features with real sculpture and waterworks. "Painted and sculpted figures," she concludes, "mythologize ordinary space." To demonstrate this point, Bergmann examines several well-preserved houses, paying special attention to patterns of viewing and associations the owners and guests might have made with the imagery. She suggests, for example, that the animal parks featured in a dozen houses at Pompeii may refer to the venationes in the local amphitheater rather than to the private zoological animal parks or paradeisoi although she connects the image of Orpheus from the eponymous house with performances of beast-taming known from literature. Bergmann's arguments from the specifics of context and content support her contention that the flora and fauna represented are not mere staffage but rather meaningful complements to the mythological stories.

Mary Beard's essay is a meditation on Horace's "Graecia capta. . ."--on the Roman reception of Greek art and culture. Roman display of Greek originals, reproductions, and reinterpretations in their houses and villas formed part of a dynamic process typical of the "multicultural melting pot of Roman Italy." Reuse or creative re-deployment of famous works of art (e.g., the Alexander mosaic, a famous painting made into a pavement; the bronze Apollo from the House of Polybius made into a tray-holder) represented adaptations of Greek culture rather than a wholesale embrace of it. Beard asks important questions about this process of acculturation: How sensitive were Roman collectors to the styles of the Greek works they acquired? How long did Greek objects appear foreign?

Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, long-time Superintendent of the region buried by Vesuvius, ends the catalogue with a rapid but informative summary of archaeological investigations around the Bay of Naples, introducing many new discoveries of the past two decades. Ceramics Found at Punta Chiarito, Ischia (the Greek Pithecussa), document the settlement of the island by Greeks from Euboea at the beginning of the eighth century B.C., as well as their trade with inhabitants of the mainland and with Etruria. The Pithecussans went on to establish a settlement at Cumae, now documented through the Roman period by excavations of its northern necropolis and the Forum. The spectacular finds occasioned by the construction of the new subway stations in Naples at Piazza Municipio and Piazza Nicola Amore document the ancient port and include the well-preserved remains of three wooden boats. Perhaps the most amazing discovery is a village founded around 1500 B.C., built in the swamps at Poggiomarino at the source of the Sarnus River. It was a kind of Middle-Bronze-Age Venice, with its many islands shored up by wooden piles preserved by the damp, along with stilts of the cabins and the woven-reed mats that covered their floors. Guzzo's final plea is that archaeologists and cultural institutions join forces so that "the cultural and aesthetic messages conveyed by our antique monuments not be exclusively reserved for the educated elite of the West."

Mattusch has organized the objects in the exhibition under five rubrics, "Patrons and Proprietors" (cat. 1-16); "Interiors" (cat. 17-63); "Courtyards and Gardens" (cat. 64-91); "A Taste for the Antique" (cat. 92-116); "Rediscovery" (cat. 117-156). Among the portraits exhibited in the first section are a number from American collections: the Julius Caesar from Toledo, the Augustus from the Walters, the Livia in black basanite from the Louvre, the turquoise cameo of Livia and Tiberius from Boston, and the Nero from Worcester. Two marbles recently discovered at Rione Terra (Pozzuoli), a portrait of Caligula and a finely-carved torso of a woman, make their debut outside of their museum at Baia. The entries are largely biographical, but since they draw almost exclusively from the sensational accounts of Suetonius, they are unbalanced in terms of modern historical analysis and are apt to leave those uninitiated into the techniques of Suetonius' invective appalled at the monstrous Julio-Claudians.

"Interiors" provides the requisite glitz in this exhibition: gold jewelry; silverware from the House of the Menander; bronze statuettes, some inlaid with copper and silver; bronze lampstands; and fine glass-ware. Visitors to the show got a surprise in the bronze lamp-bearer from the House of Fabius Rufus; whereas the photo in the catalogue presents a dignified if effeminate youth, it arrived complete with its astonishingly elaborate vine-covered tray that pushes the statue into the land of kitsch (a good example of the adaptations that Beard discusses). Another surprise was the archaistic bronze kouros, a tray-bearer from the House of Polybius at Pompeii. Found in 1977 and languishing in storage ever since, the diademed bronze youth with his snail-shell curls, inset bone eyes, and stiff frontal position documents first-century taste for the archaic. As Mattusch expertly demonstrates, this tray-bearer is the twin of the Apollo from Piombino at the Louvre; "the two bronzes might be described as two different editions of the same original model. . . ready-mades . . . cast whenever customers . . . requested them." In the case of the Polybius bronze (as in the lamp-bearer from the House of Fabius Rufus), the Roman sculptor adapted the sacred image to a functional use, holding a tray at a banquet. An image of just such a bronze tray-bearer appears in the painting of a banquet scene cut from the wall of the triclinium in the eponymous house at Pompeii (Naples inv. 120030).

The astonishing garden painting from the House of the Golden Bracelet forms the centerpiece of the section on gardens and provides a context for the display of the examples of herm-sculptures, relief-plaques on pedestals, hanging masks, and oscilla in this section. The entry on the head of a boy found at Oplontis gives the date of its excavation as March 1984; my study of the excavation notebooks records the date as 28 September 1976.

The red-ground Room of the Muses from the excavation of a dining complex at Moregine beautifully illustrates the taste for showy figural decoration in fine rooms of the late Fourth Style (A.D. 62-79), providing a striking context for the objects exhibited under the rubric "A Taste for the Antique." Mattusch follows Mastroroberto's dubious identification of portrait likenesses of Nero and his family as Apollo and the Muses.2 It is a disappointment that the famous painting from the Basilica at Herculaneum did not make it to the exhibition, especially since its recent cleaning has clarified its iconography. The catalogue entry does not take into account its astonishing new look (the photo published in the catalogue is pre-cleaning), debuted in the 2007 exhibition, "Rosso Pompeiano" in the Museo Nazionale di Palazzo Massimo, Rome.3

Mattusch's expert discussion of the bronze statue of the girl fastening her peplos from the Villa of the Papyri describes the effects of hasty workshop practices for all five of the peplophoroi and underscores their function as decorative garden ornaments--"probably ordered as a group" by the proprietor. In her examination of the gesture of the Aphrodite found at the amphitheater of Capua in 1750, Mattusch explains how the goddess was probably admiring her own reflection in the polished surface of a shield held in her outstretched arms. Two recently-discovered marbles from Rione Terra, a head of the Athena Lemnia and an Aphrodite with buttery drapery, stand out by reason of their quality.

"Rediscovery" traverses the by-now familiar subject of European response to the unearthing of the buried Vesuvian towns and villas beginning with the discovery of the Large and Small Herculaneum Women in 1709. This rubric is a veritable cabinet of curiosities, including artificial volcanoes and Pompeian tragedies staged for a voracious public, potboiler novels, tragic paintings, and even more tragic sculptures, like Randolph Rogers' "Nydia, the Blind Girl of Pompeii" (1860). Mattusch provides a fascinating account of the vagaries of modern discovery, guided during the first initial century by the whims of the Bourbon treasure-hunters, and the selective publication of finds by the Reale Accademia Ercolanese di Archeologia, established in 1755. In particular, the publication of the wall paintings influenced European taste for the next half-century in everything from interiors to furniture and decorative objects.

For the nineteenth century the record includes photographs of the ever-popular casts of victims (thanks to the techniques developed in the 1860s under Giuseppe Fiorelli, the first scientific director of excavations at Pompeii) and stereographs. Reproductions, such as Chiurazzi's replica of the table from the House of C. Cornelius Rufus, or Vincenzo Gemito's reinterpretation of the "Narcissus," flooded an eager market, especially in the United States. Along with loosely-conceived paintings of interiors inhabited by Victorian-looking "Pompeians" (Luigi Bazzani, "A Pompeian Interior," 1882; Lawrence Alma-Tadema, "A Sculpture Gallery," 1874), it is surprising to find two actual-state views of the interior of the House of M. Lucretius Fronto by Danish painter Josef Theodore Hansen (1905), precious testimony of the condition of the house just after it had been restored with modern roofs.

Mattusch, in both the catalogue and the exhibition, has made a solid contribution to the study of Pompeii and the region buried by Vesuvius. If the catalogue gracefully instructs the neophyte while also providing (particularly in her expertise in ancient sculpture) new scholarly observations and a solid bibliography, the exhibition represents a fresh perspective, beautifully coordinating cultural artifacts--many not seen before in the United States--from a variety of sources.


1.   Paul Zanker, "Die Villa als Vorbild des späten pompejanischen Wohngeschmacks,"Jahrbuch des Deutschen Archäologischen Instituts 94 (1979): 460-523.
2.   Marisa Mastroroberto, "Una visita di Nerone a Pompei: le deversoriae tabernae di Moregine," in Storie da un'eruzione: Pompei, Ercolano, Oplontis, eds. Antonio d'Ambrosio, Pier Giovanni Guzzo, and Marisa Mastroroberto (Milan: Electa, 2003), 479-523.
3.   Marinella Lista, in Rosso Pompeiano: La decorazione pittorica nelle collezioni del Museo di Napoli e a Pompei, eds. Maria Luisa Nava, Rita Paris, and Rosanna Friggeri. Roma, Museo Nazionale Romano Palazzo Massimo alle Terme, 20 dicembre 2007-31 marzo 2008 (Milan: Electa, 2007), 117-19.

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