By: Christy Grosz
When upper-class Romans looked to escape the stress of modern life in the first century A.D., they ventured to the shores of the Bay of Naples, in the shadow of Mount Vesuvius, where they built elaborate vacation villas filled with Greek antiquities.
Although lava and ash obscured these Roman showplaces for almost two millennia, the artifacts that were eventually unearthed in the 19th and 20th centuries illustrate the Romans’ affection for Greek aesthetics. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s Pompeii and the Roman Villa, Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples—which runs May 3–Oct. 4 and was organized by the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., in association with LACMA—presents some well-known discoveries from a variety of sites as well as newly excavated pieces.
“What the Romans were doing, very consciously, is they were looking to the past, especially the Greeks, as Old Masters of their day,” explains Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, who is guest curating the exhibition. “When Vesuvius erupted, the Golden Age of Athens was 500 years old. That’s the period between us and the death of Michelangelo.”
Not every vacationer along the shores of the Bay of Naples could afford to acquire original Greek art, so the pieces found in these ancient getaways might have also been reproductions or contemporary works made in Italy from Greek materials by Greek artists. “We have in the show a range of quality between Roman copies of Greek work, some contemporary Greek works that would have been imported or carved in the Bay of Naples for Romans by Greeks and then some antiques,” Lapatin says.
Among the most notable pieces in the exhibition is a sculpture of Aphrodite found at the Rione Terra site in Pozzuoli, Italy. “Her forehead’s a bit beat up, and she’s missing both arms, but otherwise she’s in really good shape,” says Lapatin. “The carving in this piece, the way the folds fold over each other—they have a life and a vitality. It’s just extraordinary.”