Pompeii Transported to Washington, D.C.

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This fall, the National Gallery of Art will host the first major exhibition of ancient Roman art in the nation’s capital. “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples,” which runs between October 19 and March 22, re-creates the world of the ancient citizens.

“It’s often been said that Washington is a city based on the French Enlightenment, but it’s actually a Roman-style city,” the National Gallery of Art’s chief of exhibitions, Dodge Thompson, said. “Our Enlightenment-era politicians looked back to their Roman models, so it’s exciting that we’re finally doing a large-scale Roman exhibition.”

The tragic story of Pompeii offers a complete approach to studying Roman life. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 common era, volcanic ash fell and managed to preserve a moment in time in the lives of residents of Roman communities such as Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Stabiae. The ash covering the towns was layered 50 feet thick and remained there for 2,000 years.

But the National Gallery isn’t focusing on Vesuvius so much as the records of the lives of leisure it preserved in the first century. “We’re staying away from the drama involved with the natural history part of the story, especially the destruction of Pompeii. In this exhibition we’re looking at the superb of art and patronage of the age,” Mr. Thompson said.

Curators of “Pompeii and the Roman Villa” were busily unpacking and setting up some of the exhibition’s major pieces this past weekend. The first of three detached frescoes from the Ufficio Scavi went up just days ago. The frescoes are the largest ensemble in the show and come from a fairly recent discovery southeast of Pompeii.

The three walls form a U-shaped room within the I.M. Pei-designed East Building and show Apollo with the muses Clio and Euterpe. The red pigments used in the fresco work of the first century are still rich and vivid today (thanks to all that ash). Each classical Greek figure is framed by stunning painted depictions of architectural framework.

Excavating a dining room of a Roman family wasn’t easy. But neither was moving it to Washington, D.C. The Romans typically used six or seven layers of plaster on the walls of their houses, a building method that kept villas cool in summer.

One of the reasons the exhibition is housed in the modern East Building of the National Gallery is that its open floor plan can accommodate such large statuary, frescoes, and architectural elements. “There’s more flexibility in the East Building,” Mr. Thompson said. “We can create the gardens with fountains, even whole dining rooms, that require this kind of opera set.”

What becomes clear from the objects is why Romans cherished their lives in southern Italy. The lush vegetation and warm climate of Campania allowed them to enjoy the spirit of otium, or leisure, in the classical sense. To do so was the opposite of — and much nobler than — conducting business, or negotium, which took place in cluttered urban centers far away from the coastal resort towns.

The exhibition includes detailed mosaics, some of which are the most famous in the history of art. The mosaic of Alexander the Great defeating the Persian King Darius III comes from the House of the Faun in Pompeii. The mosaic now resides in Naples’s Museo Archeologico Nazionale, a distinguished institution that has loaned to the National Gallery most of the artwork for this exhibition.

There’s also the statuary, which includes the small portrait-statue of a young man from the House of the Scientist in Pompeii. In 1841, archaeologists found the statue near a fountain in the courtyard of the house. The tight curls of the man’s hair and his forward stride are a direct tribute to Greek sculpture. But this limestone figure was so well preserved under layers of ash that faint traces of reddish paint are still visible on the surface, especially on his hair. Modern museumgoers will be unaccustomed to ancient Greek and Roman statues as anything but milky white.

Garden objects from these beautiful Roman villas are perhaps the showstoppers. They’re shown amid popular Roman garden plants, including rosemary, lavender, roses, and lilies. The whimsy (and, indeed, occasional raciness) of the garden statues demonstrates how much fun life was for the elite of the time. The Satyr and Hermaphrodite statue especially attests to this fact.

Some of the finest items come from Pompeii’s House of the Golden Bracelet, named for the ransom in jewels discovered there in the 19th century. It seems the eruption of Vesuvius was so fast and devastating that many town-dwellers didn’t have time to open their safes, much less run for the coastline.

October 19 through March 22 (Constitution Avenue NW, between 3rd and 7th streets, Washington, D.C., 202-737-4215, nga.gov).

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