Art Eyewitness Review
Pompeii in Color: The Life of Roman Painting
Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York
Reviewed by Ed Voves
When Mount Vesuvius erupted in the year 79, most of the unfortunate citizenry of Pompeii and nearby Herculaneum died quickly, if painfully. Deadly showers of blazing pumice and toxic gases ejected into the atmosphere from deep within the volcano killed thousands, perhaps as many 15,000, of the doomed inhabitants.
The violent fury of Vesuvius ironically preserved a complete record of life in Pompeii at the very moment of its extinction. The layers of volcanic ash which buried the city acted as a conservator of the tools and objects of everyday use, even loaves of bread waiting to be removed from bake ovens.
Remarkably, colorful paintings in the homes of Pompeii, which the hand of time has almost completely erased elsewhere in the ancient world, were saved from destruction by this "destroyer of worlds."
Pompeii in Color: The Life of Roman Painting is a newly-opened exhibition of paintings from Pompeii, presented by the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World (ISAW). Located in New York City, ISAW is affiliated with New York University and is dedicated to offering insightful examinations of the art and culture of antiquity, often from unusual vantage points which other museums have not explored.
The paintings created in the Greco-Roman world are one such category, though not by oversight or omission. There are few surviving paintings from antiquity to begin with and even fewer in the collections of American museums. The frescoes from the villa of Boscoreale (located a few miles from Pompeii) are a highlight of the Metropolitan Museum's Greek and Roman galleries. These paintings are literally in a class of their own.
There are 35 paintings and a number of related artifacts from Pompeii on view in the ISAW exhibition, generously loaned by the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. If you include the Met's Boscorale frescoes a couple of blocks away, this means that one of the most impressive displays of ancient painting ever organized outside of Italy is currently hanging on museum walls in the Big Apple.
However, there is a caveat to Pompeii in Color. ISAW remains closed to the public because of Covid-19 restrictions. Until the "all-clear" is sounded, art lovers will need to access the exhibition via the digital site prepared by the staff of ISAW. Thanks to this outstanding resource, we are able to immerse ourselves in the colorful world of ancient Rome.
Pompeii was surrounded by aristocratic country estates like that of Publius Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale. It also contained impressive "townhouses" such as the House of the Faun which occupied an entire square block within the city limits. The walls of these upper class homes proclaimed the artistic tastes of their owners with frescoes and mosaics, original works of art of the highest quality, or skillful versions of famous Greek paintings. Other dwellings, depending on the degree of affluence of the resident families, were decorated with copies of copies, of varying artistic merit.
The number and variety of paintings preserved at Pompeii comprise only a small sample of the vast array of paintings from the Greco-Roman world. Pompeii itself was not a particularly impressive or important city. The works of art which survived under the layers of volcanic ash which engulfed Pompeii are the tip of an "iceberg" which has long since melted away.
Pompeii's location in Campania, a province in southern Italy settled in earlier centuries by waves of Greek colonists, is a significant factor. Visiting or living in Pompeii offered Romans the opportunity to taste Greek culture close to home. Roman society long retained a veneer of Republican morality. In Pompeii, however, it was easier to indulge in sensual pleasures which were frowned-upon (at least publicly) in Rome itself.
The fresco known as The Three Graces, dating to the century prior to the eruption of Mount Vesuvius, depicts a trio of nude young women, most likely allegorical representations of fertility. Or they might be the goddesses who took part in the judgement of Paris which triggered the Trojan War. But it is doubtful that any real religious sentiment was involved in creating this erotic work of art.
As Maxwell Anderson, a specialist on Roman art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, noted:
The painted walls of Roman villas provide an unparalleled record of the life and world view of the well-to-do two millennia ago. They are not only the physical remains of a site, but also mirrors of the Romans' cultural and artistic concerns. Frescoed walls in private Roman houses seem to have been almost exclusively decorative, only rarely appearing to have served a cultic or religious purpose.
Many of the frescoes from Pompeii deal with subjects from Greek mythology which were interpreted with little in the way of authentic spiritual conviction. Some homes in Pompeii, notably the House of the Vetii, did have shrines with devotional paintings on the walls. Here, in the time-honored fashion of Roman religious practice, portrait statues of bygone ancestors would have been displayed.
Along with "old-fashion" religion, another subject was notably absent from the art of Pompeii: military glory. Apart from the famous mosaic of Alexander the Great battling King Darius of Persia, located in the House of the Faun, works of art depicting scenes of warfare do not appear to have been a favored subject in Pompeii.
This is worthy of some consideration, as Pompeii had been chosen as the site for retirement of a large contingent of the veteran soldiers of the Roman commander, Sulla. This took place following the revolt of southern Italian cities (including Pompeii) against Roman expansion. Pompeii was besieged by Sulla's legions and fell after prolonged resistance in 89 B.C. Land seizure, to provide homes for Sulla's demobilized troops, was widespread.
Perhaps, bitter memories of this uncivil war lingered in Pompeii, with the result that little effort was devoted to creating war memorials and triumphal arches which figured so prominently in Rome and other cities associated with the Roman military.
If several of the paintings on view in Pompeii in Color are any indication, a distinctly "unheroic" view of life characterized the paintings on villa and townhouse walls. Two pairs of paintings, both dated to the years just before the eruption of Vesuvius, are devoted to incidents which are rich in human comedy, at the expense of mythic heroism.
The first of the paired paintings recounts the story of Hercules and Queen Omphale. Hercules, having murdered a friend in a fit of blind rage, was bound to serve a year of slavery as an act of penitence. As a double blow to his vanity, the muscle-bound hero was forced to serve a "barbarian" queen, Omphale of Lydia. Hercules had to perform all manner of deeds, from burying Icarus after he fell from the skies to assisting Omphale with her knitting.
In one of the paintings, the humiliation apparently got the best of Hercules, requiring several flagons of liguid courage. He is shown, unsteady on his feet, while Omphale looks on him with a dubious gaze. She is clad in Hercules' lion skin cloak and carries his formidable club. Clearly, the inebriated hero could not be trusted with his own weapons!
Love, in such tales, always finds a way to reach a happy ending. Eventually, Hercules and Omphale fell in love. They appear in a double portrait, which to me is the "show-stopper" of the entire exhibition. It is a moving evocation of the bond between two people who truly care for each other. The emotion underpinning their mutual regard reminds me of the expressions on the faces of husband and wife in Rembrandt's The Jewish Bride.
This heart-felt work of art must surely be the portrait of a real-life pair of lovers from Pompeii, in the guise of a hero and heroine from the mythic past!
The second pair of paintings concerns an incident leading to the Trojan War. The story of Achilles on the Island of Skyros does not appear in the Illiad, but comes out of the vast number of related legends or later "spin-offs" of the fabled war. It is a tale of gender-bending, mistaken-identity which has a greater affinity with Shakespeare's comedies than Homeric epic.
According to this story, Achilles' mother induces him to go into hiding on the Island of Skyros so that he will not be killed in the Trojan War. Achilles ditches his combat gear, donning women's clothing to avoid detection. Odysseus, sent to bring him to the Greek camp at Troy, tricks Achilles into reaching for a sword, thereby revealing his identity.
Achilles' misadventures on Skyros likely served as the plot for a comic play in ancient times. It is pleasant to think of the citizens of Pompeii laughing at this hilarious send-up of the heroes of the Trojan War. Theater-going was popular in Pompeii and many of the painted narrative scenes on the walls of homes in the city or surrounding countryside villas likely depicted incidents from favorite plays.
Paintings created in the the two decades before the eruption of Vesuvius, 60-79, are known as Fourth Style paintings. These are notable for the narrative scenes like those we discussed above, Hercules and Omphale and Achillies on the Island of Skyros. Earlier painting styles stressed architectural details and trompe-l'oeill effects.
Most of the paintings on view in Pompeii in Color are Fourth Style works. But there are a number which feature elements from the First through Third styles which will make scholarly appraisal possible.
Architectural Landscape, 1st century CE. Herculaneum
The Roman delight in such intricate detail and "trick of the eye" illusionism is rather overdone, to suit my taste. But the paintings stressing quiet moments of life, like the woman painter in her studio or the enigmatic face emerging from a canopy of a grape arbor, are unforgettable.
And it is entirely appropriate that we remember the people of Pompeii, for it is impossible not to reflect on their tragic fate.
Back in the late 1970's, I saw the spectacular Pompeii AD 79 exhibition at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. It was a "once in a lifetime" exhibit. But I remember feeling pensive and unsettled looking at the display of art and artifacts relating to people who had died en masse, suddenly and tragically. It was the height of the Cold War and apocalyptic thoughts were not uncommon in those days.
Later, I learned that the great Italian poet, Primo Levi, had been moved to write a searing poem comparing the death of a young child at Pompeii to victims of the Holocaust and Hiroshima. In The Little Girl of Pompeii, Levi, who had survived Auschwitz, began his poem with the gripping words:
Since everyone’s anguish is our own
Levi went on to write:
Centuries have passed, the ash has petrified
To imprison those delicate limbs forever.
In this way you stay with us, a twisted plaster cast,
Agony without end, terrible witness to how much
Our proud seed matters to the gods.
These haunting words - and the deeply humane sentiments the went into writing them - do "stay with us." It is hard for me to banish them from my mind when thinking about Pompeii and more recent tragedies which invite comparison, as Levi does so memorably in his poem.
Yet, I am happy to say that Pompeii in Color has had a liberating effect upon my feelings. This brilliant exhibition, filled with color and light, love and life, at the ISAW has helped me grapple with the ambivalent, troubled emotions I felt when viewing Pompeii AD 79 so long ago. Though I've yet to see the actual paintings at ISAW, the effect of this exhibition has been spirit and life affirming!
Now, when I think of Primo Levi's The Little Girl of Pompeii, I no longer view her in my mind's eye as "a twisted plaster cast." Rather, I see her as a face surrounded by ripening grapes and green leaves, a fey and ethereal face, emancipated from the hardened ash that entombed her bones.
Text: Copyright of Ed Voves, all rights reserved
Images courtesy of the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, New York City, and the University of Michigan open access photos, https://quod.lib.umich.edu/a/aict?auth=world;sort=aict_ti;type=boolean;view=reslist;rgn1=ic_all;q1=aict
Introductory Image: Hercules and Omphale, 1st century CE. Herculaneum. Fresco: H. 40.3 cm; W. 41 cm. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 9004. Image © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Pompeii: general view to the north, showing paved street with pedestrian crossing blocks; in the background, Mount Vesuvius. University Of Michigan open access photo. ID RM055. Photo Date: June 1993
Banquet Scene with Inscribed Words, 1st century CE. Pompeii. Fresco from the House of the Triclinium, East wall, central section: H. 77.5 cm; W. 77.6 cm. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 120029. Image © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples
Architectural Landscape, 1st century CE. Pompeii. Fresco from the House of the Peristyle: H. 121.3 cm; W. 96.5 cm. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 8572. Image © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples
The Three Graces, 1st century CE. Pompeii. Masseria di Cuomo – Irace,. Fresco: H. 60 cm; W. 53.3 cm. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 9231. Image © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Shrine fresco from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii: detail of Genius (spirit) of the Paterfamilias flanked by two lares. University Of Michigan open access photo. ID RM063. Photo Date: June 1993
Hercules and Omphale, 1st century CE. Pompeii. Fresco from the House of Marcus Lucretius, triclinium 16, east wall, central section: H. 203.2 cm; W. 162.6 cm. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 8992. Image © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples
Hercules and Omphale, 1st century CE (detail). Herculaneum. Fresco (see data for introductory image.
Achilles on the Island of Skyros, 1st century CE. Pompeii. Fresco from the House of Achilles or House of the Skeleton or House of Stronnius, cubiculum u, north wall, central section: H. 156.5 cm; W. 148.6 cm. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 116085/ Image © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples
Fourth-style mural painting sequence from the House of the Vettii, Pompeii. University Of Michigan open access photo. ID RM067. Photo Date: June 1993
Architectural Landscape, 1st century CE. Herculaneum. Fresco from the Villa of the Papyri:, H. 71.1 cm; W. 90.5 cm. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 9423. Image © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples
Still-life Fragments representing Vase, Scrolls, Landscape, and Fruit, 1st century CE. Herculaneum. Fresco: H. 51.1 cm; W. 62.5 cm. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 9819. Image © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples
Painter at Work, 1st century CE. Pompeii. Fresco from the House of the Surgeon: H. 45.4 cm; W. 45 cm. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 9018. Image © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Mask amid Bunches of Grapes and Vines, 1st century CE. Pompeii. Fresco from the House of V. Popidius or House of Mosaic Doves, triclinium 13, east wall, central section. H. 54.6 cm; W. 55.2 cm. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 9798. Image © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples