‘Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples’ comes to LACMA

It’s been 10 years since the Los Angeles County Museum of Art brought us “Pompeii: Life in a Roman Town.”“In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite,” an exhibition of antiquities excavated from a site near Pompeii, toured the country from 2004 to 2008, stopping at the San Diego Museum of Art in 2006.

Now here comes “Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples,” opening Sunday at LACMA. A major project organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the exhibition offers an impressive selection of frescoes, sculptures and decorative objects that adorned splendid vacation houses before they were buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79.

Another Pompeii show? Already?

This time around, the familiar theme has a new twist that may appeal to Southern California’s celebrity watchers. Instead of exploring the daily lives of ordinary Pompeians, as some previous shows have done, “Pompeii and the Roman Villa” focuses on lifestyles of the rich and famous.

“It’s the Hamptons,” says Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum and guest curator of the exhibition. But when wealthy New Yorkers retreat to their favorite seaside playground, they don’t steep themselves in classical Greek culture.

Romans who built lavish homes and gardens around the Bay of Naples constructed a Greek-style fantasy land. Fresco scenes covered walls of rooms furnished with artworks and other objects inspired by Greek antiquities. Although most frescoes in the exhibition are relatively small fragments, one gallery contains a dining room with fresco walls, depicting Apollo and his muses against a bright red background.

The Romans were neither the first nor the last privileged people to identify with a previous Golden Age as an emblem of sophistication, Lapatin says. Ancient Mesopotamians copied historic artworks; Greeks drew inspiration from their archaic predecessors; 17th and 18th century English gentry decorated their houses with Italian artworks and furnishings purchased on Grand Tours and often commissioned new pieces in the same styles.

“But the pervasive use of the art of the past for self-fashioning is a particularly elite Roman thing,” the curator says. “All the upper classes went to study in Greece.” Warts and wrinkles in so-called realistic portraits of Romans made the subjects appear tough and hard-working, he says, “but when they went to their country homes, they would suddenly become Greek philosophers and talk about Greek culture. It’s kind of like the Russian courts speaking French. Schizophrenia may be too strong a word for it, but different hats for different audiences in different places.”

The first of the exhibition’s five sections, “Patrons and Proprietors,” presents images of Romans who effectively wore Greek hats around the Bay of Naples. But the segment called “A Taste for the Antique” carries the conceptual weight of the show, Lapatin says. The first Roman collectors of Greek art brought it to Italy as booty. But by the 1st century BC, when villas rose around the Bay of Naples, the collections that filled them were mostly Greek-style frescoes, statuary, portraits, reliefs and mosaics made to order by Greeks who had immigrated to Italy to participate in a thriving market.

As might be expected, something was lost in translation as artworks created for Greek temples and monuments evolved into conversation pieces and residential decor.

“The meanings changed,” Lapatin says.

And the exhibited artworks, largely drawn from the vast holdings of Italy’s National Archaeological Museum in Naples, are likely to acquire additional layers of meaning for Los Angeles viewers.

LACMA officials are expecting a good crowd for their big spring and summer attraction, but not a blockbuster along the lines of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs,” which brought 937,613 visitors to the museum during a six-month period in 2005. The estimated attendance for “Pompeii’s” five-month run is 160,000 -- less than half the 351,987 who saw it over a similar time span at the National Gallery, where admission is free and the supply of tourists is endless.

Nonetheless, the Wilshire Boulevard museum is issuing special tickets to its edition of the show: $25 including a recorded tour, $20 after 5 p.m. That’s less than the $30 charged for “Tut,” but more than the $20 fee for the museum’s last ticketed show, “Dali: Painting and Film” -- neither of which included an audio guide.

Exhibition tickets are often perceived as a means of crowd control, but that’s not the main point with “Pompeii,” says Mark Mitchell, the museum’s budget and investment officer.

“The first goal is to try to recoup some of the costs,” he says, declining to state the exhibition’s price tag. “We hope that the tickets will generate enough revenue to help offset the cost of the rest of the exhibition program,” Mitchell says. “We try to schedule at least one such show a year. Of everything we are doing over this time period, ‘Pompeii’ is the one that is most likely to draw.”

What he calls the “pizazz factor” of tickets tends to heighten public interest, build membership and encourage donations, Mitchell says. “We are more likely to get some underwriting, as we have for this exhibition, when we can say this is our big deal show.” This year’s “big deal” is sponsored by Bank of America.