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

The National Gallery of Art unveils close to 150 works of art excavated from or inspired by the ancient city of Pompeii.
By Paul Richard
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 19, 2008; Page M01

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.

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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."

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