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Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples

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Editorial Review

Day of Wrath
The National Gallery's Enlightening Look at the Opulence and Destruction of 'Pompeii'

By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 19, 2008

Aug. 23, A.D. 79, was the last day of Pompeii.

Who has not imagined what befell that chic resort?

The towering volcano, then the wrath-of-God explosion, the rivers of red lava, the hot snows of gray ash, the fluted columns crashing, the statues overturned, and the panic of the dying as the tradesmen in their shops, and the dogs still in their kennels, and the nobles in their jewels are buried all at once.

That epitome of catastrophe smolders at the core of "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples," the terrific exhibition that goes on view today at the National Gallery of Art.

Portrait busts and goddesses, atria and niches, a living Roman garden of rosemary and laurel, mosaics underfoot, frescoes on the walls; you ought to go and see it. Its objects are deluxe. Its every telling detail (the old bronze of the cases, the entasis of the columns) feels learnedly considered. The show in the East Building is one of those spectaculars, generous and costly, that no one does as well as the National Gallery of Art. And the terrible yet tingly story that it tells is pretty hard to beat.

First we get the horror, and then a kind of miracle, a sort of resurrection, as the victims of Vesuvius -- their reading lamps, their fountains, the very postures of their bodies -- are brought back into light.

And what we see we recognize, for the culture of Pompeii -- its polished marble tabletops, its luxurious expectations, its antiquarian bragging, its conspicuous vacations -- is already there within us. It is also all about us. Step out of the gallery, look up and down the Mall, and what you mostly see is a kind of faux antiquity -- of pediments and statues, acanthus leaves and obelisks -- stretching far away. Believe it or not, there had never been a major show of ancient Rome in Washington. Here, for the first time, we get to see the real thing.

Had the National Gallery delivered just a show of Roman treasures -- these tall statues brought alive by their eyes of colored stone, that great bronze of Alexander, these standard lamps and birdbaths -- it would have done enough. But its director, Earl A. "Rusty" Powell III, who finagled these grand loans and raised the needed money (from the Bank of America), and the curator in charge, Carol C. Mattusch of George Mason University, and the gallery's Mark Leithauser, whose cool team of designers devised the installation, have done a whole lot more. Their exhibition shows how the last day of Pompeii adjusted our aesthetic, set a template for our wishes, and got so deep into our minds.

* * *

People with the wherewithal have been finding their way gladly to the coast below Vesuvius (with its sweet herb-scented breezes, its incomparable seafood, and its view of far-off Capri) for millennia at least.

It's a place alive with myths. Hercules dropped by while performing his Tenth Labor (hence the town of Herculaneum; and Pompeii takes its name from the triumph that he held there -- pompa-- when his heavy work was done). Odysseus came as well (Baios, his old helmsman, drowned in these blue waters, and gave his name to Baiae, a nearby resort town).

"Baiae," noted Cicero, "is synonymous with lechery, love, adultery, the good life, banquets, parties, song."

Neapolis, now Naples, had been a Greek city for 500 years before it became officially a Roman one in 89 B.C. The rich resorts around it kept their Greek aesthetic. The Romans of the region venerated Homer, Alexander and all things ancient Greek. You see that in their art.

By then that lovely curving coast had famously become a place of leisured pleasure, a sort of a Hamptons to busy Rome's Manhattan. Seaside homes were built there by Julius Caesar, by Augustus the first emperor, Tiberius, Caligula, Claudius and Nero, and the richest of their countrymen. The villas they constructed, as one might imagine, were competitively grand.

One of these, the Villa dei Papiri (named for the black scrolls of carbonized papyrus discovered in its ruins), was a 65,000-square-foot wonder high above the water with staircases and terraces descending to the sea. The startling bronze statue "Girl Fastening her Peplos" (or perhaps she's undoing it) is just one of more than 80 large-scale statues from that buried villa's grounds.

In 1974, the oilman J. Paul Getty did his best to re-create that villa by the sea -- in Malibu, Calif. Like a lot of other people, Getty kept on dreaming of Pompeii.

Imagine the music. And the scale of the feasting, and the exotic dishes served there on gold-and-silver plates (one cookbook of the time discusses camel heels and flamingo tongues). And imagine the entertainments, the dancing girls, the acrobats, the gladiatorial battles. (Pompeii, in its heyday, had 23,000 people and an amphitheater large enough to seat almost all of them.)

Then Vesuvius erupted. For the next 16 centuries most of this was lost.

The town of Herculaneum was not seen again until its theater was discovered by well-diggers at work in 1738.

Excavations quickly followed. They were paid for by the king (the enlightened Charles VII, the Spanish Bourbon ruler of Naples and Sicily), and directed by a pro (Karl Jakob Weber, a skilled Swiss engineer who may have been the first scientific archaeologist), but the treasures brought to light there were not for the many, only for the few. Only the important were invited to the dig. Weber's team had drilled 90 feet through the dark, cementlike pyroclastic flow, and the theater could be seen now, but the visit wasn't fun. The viewer was "conducted," one of them reported, "down a dark flight of more than a hundred steps to the dank and chilly theater. . . . An accurate idea of the place is not easily formed . . . It rather resembles a profoundly dark subterranean labyrinth."

It was not until much later -- with the Napoleonic wars finally concluded, and the banditti of Campania pretty well suppressed, and steamship tourism expanding, and the advent of the photograph -- that the last day of Pompeii seized the wider public's awe.

Pompeii's resurrection, as the show makes clear, was to a large degree a Victorian phenomenon. Science and romance, terrifying cataracts and moralizing stories, scientific study of rocks and plants and newts and yearning for belief, were all mixed up together in the Victorian imagination.

The colors of the walls there seemed as startlingly fresh as those of shining butterflies brought from far away and pinned down on a card. The dead of the disaster, once their molds were filled with plaster, seemed as nearly brought to life as did stuffed birds in a bell jar. The lost-found story of Pompeii, which seemed to have a moral -- of confidence destroyed and decadence chastized -- appeared ideally devised for the ripe Victorian mind.

So what you got were fads -- a suddenly erupting interest in volcanoes, and in ancient Romans (those patriotic, prosperous, world-ruling imperialists so very much like us), and in the heated climate of Naples and Pompeii.

Artists across Europe began to fill their paintings with wild, scary images of Vesuvius erupting, preferably at night. Their oils are on view. In Britain and in France, and America as well, grand rooms reflected the new Vesuvian fashion. One of these evoked in the National Gallery exhibit -- the Senate Appropriations Committee's main committee room in the U.S. Capitol -- was decorated boldly by Constantino Brumidi in 1856 in Pompeian red and blue.

Two very famous Englishmen also helped to make the last day of Pompeii a sensational phenomenon. The first was William Hamilton, a learned British diplomat who spent many years in Naples in the second half of the 18th century. When visitors who mattered landed in that city, Hamilton would take them to the smoking summit of Vesuvius; he ascended the volcano more than 60 times. He was also a collector who, in 1772, sold his vast collection of Neapolitan antiquities -- more than 700 vases, 600 bronzes and 6,000 coins -- to the British Museum, London.

The second was a novelist, Edward Bulwer-Lytton, whose "The Last Days of Pompeii" was published to immense acclaim in 1834. Before the century was over his book would be republished more than 20 times. The historically recorded stories of Pompeii, and those invented by the novelist, were soon so mixed together that visitors to Italy were confidently shown the very houses in Pompeii where his characters had lived.

The gallery's exhibit closes with a triumph, an enormous painted fiction by Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema -- "A Sculpture Gallery" (1874) -- which blends antiquarian learning and rich Victorian kitsch in almost equal measure. The earlier pre-Raphaelites mostly had depicted medieval castles and knights in shining armor. Here, instead, we see a family of Romans who seem to be selecting sculptures for their seaside villa in Pompeii. The statues look authentic, which shouldn't be surprising, since they're elsewhere in the show. The Romans look Victorian, which is not surprising either, since they are the painter's young wife and two daughters.

The movies would come later. (The 1935 one with Basil "Sherlock Holmes" Rathbone may have been the scariest.) So, too, would the slide shows, and the fireworks displays of "The Last Days of Pompeii." But Pompeian archaeology and imaginary drama had already merged.

Painted on the wall toward the exhibition's end is a quote from J. W. von Goethe, who visited Pompeii in 1787: "There have been many disasters in this world," wrote the German poet, "but few have given so much delight to posterity." A motto for this show.