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Saturday, March 16, 2013


Mt. Vesuvius rains down ash on Pompeii.
The moral of the story is: don't build cities at the base of a volcano.
When one mentions the ancient Roman city of Pompeii, the first thing which comes to mind is not art but Vesuvius. Yet, we have Vesuvius to thank for much of what we know about Roman art. Of course the people of Pompeii wouldn't see it that way. Ever since 79 AD, volcanoes have not been seen there in a positive light. The image above would tend to indicate why. Today, Vesuvius remains a threat to the whole bay of Naples community. It's an active volcano in the midst of one of Italy's major population centers. However Pompeii once more has an important presence in the Neapolitan community as its most important art treasure and tourist attraction.
Pompeii's Long Street lives up to its ancient name.
The story of  Pompeii is so well known as to not bear repeating. Indeed, the history of the city, and its neighbor, Herculaneum (which fared even worse in the eruption) is similarly common knowledge. However, the art an architecture isn't. I visited the site in May of 2001. In approaching the ruins, one expects to visit a seaport. Today, Pompeii is several hundred yards from the water and sits upon a hill (a not uncommon defensive position for ancient cities). The site leaves several lasting impressions. Perhaps foremost is its size. Though nowhere close to Rome at the time, Pompeii was no insignificant provincial outpost. It was a major Roman port city. It even had at least one suburb. It was obviously a city of wealth, commerce, and culture as seen in the remains of its villas, its forum, its amphitheater, even its bordellos and drinking establishments. What you see today as to size is all the more significant when you realize what you don't see. Fully half of the city remains buried (mostly residential areas).

Pompeii is crisscrossed by three major thoroughfares and a couple more relatively minor ones. The lower right quadrant is the oldest part of the city. The elongated space
in the lower left section is the forum. The dotted areas have yet to be excavated.
When the first frescoed walls of Pompeii were rediscovered in 1599 as engineers were seeking to divert the Sarno River, the Italian architect Domenico Fontana was called in. He took one look, then had the walls reburied. Not only did he not realize what they'd discovered, the images themselves brought to light the fact that the city had once been a very hedonistic place, a vacation resort for wealthy Romans. To Italian eyes, in the midst of the counter-reformation, they were little short of obscene. (Later discoveries could only be considered pornographic, even by today's standards.) It was another 39 years before the Italians realized what a buried treasure they had, and then only because the King of Naples wanted a palace built on land which turned out to be the ancient resting place of the town of Herculaneum. Deliberate Pompeian excavations in 1748 were the direct result of that. Digging up the city has been more or less continuous for the past 250 years since (allowing for a various and sundry wars in the area).

A reconstruction image of
the temple of Apollo in the
Pompeii forum.
The Pompeii forum as it
appears today with two
remaining columns of the temple.
The architecture was Roman, though more accurately it could be termed the first of many instances of Greek Revival. However, as might be expected in a town that was already some seven-hundred years old when it met its tragic fate, the styles range from Hellenic to Corinthian, though several Doric columns can be found in the forum. The domestic villas tended toward "modern" Roman Doric in style but were so inwardly oriented around an open atrium that exterior street facades tend toward the bland, giving little hint of the opulence of the interior d├ęcor.

The open-air atrium of a reconstructed villa. It's hard to see where preservation leaves off and reconstruction begins. Add a few Romans in togas, a little wine, and even the sculptures would seem to come to life.
This frescoed still-life dates from around 70 BC.

Inside, the first impression coming to mind is that the movies got it right. If you recall interior scenes from films such as Spartacus, Cleopatra, Quo Vadis, or Ben-Hur, it's not hard to see them in the restorations evident within Pompeian villas. Though floor mosaics are impressive, most wall decoration was fresco (pigments applied to wet plaster). Some are remarkably well preserved, though it's difficult to tell preservation from restoration. Despite what Fontana may have encountered in 1599, not all Pompeian frescoes are erotic. In fact, the majority are not. Still, Fontana was not the last to rebury what he found based on a sense of prudish modesty. Archaeologists have since stumbled upon other erotic images exhibiting signs of having been reburied. And if not reburied, many have been locked away in so-called "secret cabinets" only to have been opened to the public, closed, and reopened at various times during the past hundred years depending upon the sexual mores of the times. Most such images are now open to the public, even to children accompanied by parents. (No, I'm not going to include such images here.)
From Pompeii's House of the Vetti, this fresco from the early first century not only
hints at the erotic content of some Pompeian art but also demonstrates the "baroque"
illusionistic skills of the artists at the time. Art historians have termed the illusion of
depth "relative perspective" (as opposed to linear perspective).

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