Review: ‘Pompeii & the Roman Villa’ at LACMA


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With the possible exception of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, everybody loves a good volcano story. The explosion! The lava flow! The ash cloud! Unspeakable death and destruction! The violent drama is exciting.

Even Andy Warhol painted Mt. Vesuvius as an imagined explosion of lime green, hot pink, searing orange, putrid purple and raging red colors. Fortunately, that trashy 1985 painting is not included in “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples,” the absorbing exhibition of ancient art that opened Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Warhol painted nothing that wasn’t already famous (or infamous), and exhibitions of Pompeiian art can get buried beneath tons of celebrity volcanology. With a minor exception, this one doesn’t.


“Pompeii and the Roman Villa” is a well-considered, beautifully installed examination of elite Roman taste roughly two millenniums ago, as manifest in the country houses of powerful nobles along the Neapolitan coastline. The one misstep comes in the final section, when we’re asked to look at 18th and 19th century European art that responded to the discovery and excavation of Pompeii, buried beneath molten lava, gray ash and pumice stone in the summer of AD 79, swallowing up thousands of victims.

It isn’t just that this Romantic era survey is incomplete — Christian Dahl’s quintessential 1826 fantasia based on a contemporary eruption of Vesuvius is not here, for instance. Or that the truly awful stuff -- such as Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s grandiose 1874 ode to monumental Victorian trivia, “A Sculpture Gallery” -- is. It’s that the subject of this final section is different from the earlier ones.

The closing room displays artists and craftsmen responding to the history, legends and contemporary science of a dramatic event. (Appropriately, it comes just before the museum gift shop.) The enlightening galleries that unfold before it, meanwhile, display Roman artists engaged in a fascinating aesthetic conversation with their forebears in ancient Greece.

“Pompeii and the Roman Villa” is a large but not exhausting study of one culture absorbing and remaking the artistic legacy of another, to suit its own social purposes. Rome had vanquished Greece in the sack of Corinth in 146 BC, but the Romans didn’t denigrate Greek art as something foreign and inferior. Instead, they regarded it as magnificent, something worth emulating and, if possible, enhancing — a sign of Rome’s own much greater power and glory in having triumphed over a major civilization.

Something at once highly refined and crudely militaristic characterizes the Roman attitude. Take the heavy bronze gladiator’s helmet decorated with complex reliefs that relate episodes in the fall of Troy. That’s a founding story of Rome, established from the tangled tale of Trojan history. Whatever the far-flung military conquests of Greece and Rome, however, today we associate the leisure pursuits of one with competitive athletic games and the other with vicious gladiatorial combat. The helmet, probably a Pompeiian show-piece rather than something actually worn in the bloody ring, is a warrior’s artifact elevated to the status of elaborate decorative sculpture.

The show covers a period roughly between the empire-builder Julius Caesar (102-44 BC), whose decision to erect a Neapolitan retreat far from Rome’s civic intrigues made the region around Pompeii into the fashionable Palm Springs or Hamptons of his day, and the tyrannical emperor Nero (AD 37-68), who died not long before Vesuvius erupted. (Some have used Nero’s decadence as an explanation for Pompeii’s tragic fate, which is sort of like Pat Robertson blaming Florida hurricanes on Gay Day at Disney World.) Villa culture is the show’s focus.


Romans approached art of ancient Greece and Periclean Athens in three ways. Some clumsy Roman works are content just to signify historical awareness. Others seek to match the skill and copy the beauty of what came before. And the rest transform it into something distinctly Roman.

A bronze bust of a young man or Apollo, his eyebrows and upper lip inset with copper that results in a vacant, mechanical stare, crudely recalls archaic Greek sculpture. (His corkscrew ringlets of hair look like latter-day fusilli pasta.) By contrast, a beautifully carved marble relief shows a classically inspired figure of Achilles using his dagger to scrape rust from his spear into the abdominal wound of the regal Telephos, whose left leg tenses, toes splayed, and whose mouth gently exhales in pain. Finally a bronze fisherman astride a fountainhead is a playful, marvelously observed figure from life whose role is simply to provide thematic adornment for a garden fishpond.

Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the Getty Villa — itself based on a lavish country house excavated at Herculaneum, up the coast a bit from Pompeii — ably organized the traveling LACMA show. (Carol C. Mattusch did the honors for Washington’s National Gallery of Art, where it originated.) He divided the Pompeiian galleries into four sections, which unfold in a wonderfully coherent and informative way.

First is a room of 10 portrait busts and statues, plus one fragment of wall-painting and some fancy jewelry, which comprise a Who’s Who of villa owners or family members. Next is a gallery that articulates the fashion for Greek art and culture among the Roman aristocracy. The “who” and “what” of ancient Pompeii are established.

The “where” completes the quartet, dramatically upping the ante.

The show hits a peak in the third section, devoted to an almost uniformly exquisite compilation of sculptures, reliefs, wall paintings and a mosaic that adorned villa gardens in the temperate seaside region. The Roman fashion for these pastoral settings may have evolved from Plato’s Academy just outside Athens, the contemplative retreat centered on a sacred grove of olive trees dedicated to Athena, goddess of (among other things) wisdom. Judging from the art, though, Pompeii’s gardens were as much about sensual pleasure as learning.

A nearly 6-by-12-foot fresco shows a sumptuous garden, its luxurious flora filled with birds and studded with sculpture. The remarkable painting came from a villa living room that once faced a garden, merging cultivated exterior and interior spaces. Nature’s fluctuations are set against culture’s permanent bloom, both equally ravishing and revered.


The fourth section focuses on villa interiors, including sculptures transformed into oil lamps, fresco still lifes, ancient glass (most loaned from the Getty’s excellent collection) and so on. Three bright red walls of a dining room are adorned with paintings of Apollo and his muses in a trompe l’oeil architectural setting — a place for lively feasts. The social gatherings are given at least a gloss of literary and artistic rumination, provided by the inspirational figures painted on surrounding walls.

What the villa garden and interior galleries remind us is that almost all the Roman art in this exhibition was made for ornamental purposes. Modern traditions tend to equate decoration with trivia, and the mind recoils at being considered insufficiently intellectual. That’s our loss, if “Pompeii and the Roman Villa” is any guide.

-- Christopher Knight

Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5908 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles. Noon-8 p.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, noon-9 p.m. Fridays; 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Ends Oct. 4. $25. (323) 857-6000.