Pompeii in Color: The Life of Roman Painting
On ViewInstitute For The Study Of The Ancient World
January 26–May 29, 2022
The eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE preserved the world of Pompeii and Herculaneum like a bee in amber. Serious excavations, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century, began to pull the curtain back on these intimate lives that were terminated in an instant. We feel like voyeurs contemplating a mysterious lost world. This exhibition at NYU’s Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, which was organized with the National Archaeological Museum of Naples and Mondo Mostre, presents thirty-five masterpieces chiseled from the walls of domestic interiors. Pots of pigment and examples of underpainting, grids, and sketches give us a glimpse into the painting processes and the different roles of the anonymous artists. Frescoes—paintings created while the plaster is still wet—require speed, and artists worked in teams with an imaginarius creating complex figurative panels while the parietarius’s role was to paint the backgrounds. Each thematic collaboration between artists and clients gives us a hint as to whether the patron was a bacchanalian party animal or a man of conservative piety. Here, we can also see the interaction between Greek mythology and the Roman world.
Female figures are well represented in this exhibition. In some cases, one can track a tension between an older tradition and transformation. Examples of noble and pious self-sacrifice can be seen. In what today is a cringy fresco Cimon and Pero, Pero feeds her starving father from her breast as he languishes in prison after being condemned to death, a virtue like pietàs or loyalty to parents, trumping female modesty known as pudicitia. Admetus and Alcestis, from the House of the Tragic Poet, represents a woeful scene from Euripides. King Admetus is fated to die by an oracle read by Apollo, shown upper right with a priestess. Admetus is saved by his wife Alcestis, the only one willing to sacrifice herself in his place. Even his elderly parents, seen on the balcony, have refused to die to save their son.
Women dumped by their boyfriends was a theme in antiquity, as well, as we see in Dido Abandoned by Aeneas. In the painting, Aeneas’s ship sails off following the fall of Troy. Queen Dido, founder of Carthage, sits enthroned and flanked by two attendants: a Black woman, elegantly dressed and holding an ivory rhyton, and another aide who wears an elephant headdress. The rhyton and headdress reinforce a connection to the Punic Wars, in which elephants fought for Carthage. Distraught by Aeneas’s departure, the scene captures the moment in the story when Dido curses him and then commits suicide. Prized in the period’s Orphic women’s cults was another myth: Ariadne, abandoned on Naxos by her ungrateful boyfriend Theseus, is rescued by Dionysus, who marries her. Poor Dido has no such luck.
Women artists visiting the exhibition will be fascinated by an early image of a woman painting. Painter at Work (first century CE), from the House of the Surgeon, shows a seated matron holding a dish in one hand with a painted panel at her feet. Her right hand reaches back into a box of pigments. This painting within a painting is an example of the involvement of Pompeian women in the arts as a refined, domestic pursuit.
For those viewers who are veterans of ill-chosen romantic hookups, Punished Eros (first century CE), from the House of Punished Love, could serve as an emblem. Here, Eros, that naughty little Cupid of misplaced arrows, hides as he is confronted by his mother Venus, who has confiscated his quiver and arrows—a fitting punishment. Passions ran amuck in the ancient world as much as they do today, and Dionysus and his maenads lurked in the foliage. The tiny panel, Mask amid bunches of grapes and vines, feels like a microcosm of a larger garden room like Rome’s so-called Villa of Livia at Prima Porta. In this small fresco, we see grape leaves surrounding a Dionysian mask. This theme is repeated throughout the exhibition with many small panels featuring winged cupids such as Symposium of Erotes, Symposium of Erotes and Psyches, Concert of Psychest, Dance of Psyches, and Concert of Psyches.
Hercules and Omphale, another favorite subject in Pompeian wall painting, is shown in three frescoes at ISAW. What woman can’t understand Omphale becoming enamored of that hunk Hercules, buying him from slavery, and seducing him with a bit of help from Dionysus! A symbol of potent masculinity—sometimes drunken, but always sun tanned (a pictorial device common for showing an idealization of the active, outdoorsy male)—he beams down on the viewer in Hercules and Omphale, a work from the walls of the aristocratic reveler Marcus Lucretius, a man who also probably liked to take a drink. In a circular medallion, also entitled Hercules and Omphale from Herculaneum, the doe eyed Omphale looks lovingly into the eyes of the ruddy he-man Hercules.
The ISAW Pompeii exhibition is a wonderful addition to the Metropolitan Museum’s frescoes from the Villa of P. Fannius Synistor at Boscoreale. An excellent catalogue, wall texts, and displays of tools and pigments makes the exhibition feel like a studio visit. It has an immediacy and such freshness. This stellar New York University resource never disappoints. It is well worth a trip uptown as we experience a collapse of an empire all our own.