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Excavating the Roman Suburbs

In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite, National Museum of Natural HistoryOne of the exhibits I put on my list of things to see (see post on October 6) was In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite, at the National Museum of Natural History. It's not a blockbuster, but it is well worth a visit before it closes on October 24. Although this show was reviewed by the Washington Post (Jacqueline Trescott, Buried by Vesuvius, Villas Fit for a Caesar, April 28), the newspaper's Web site is not making it easy to find. I can't find any other newspaper reviews of it. (This exhibit has been in Washington, D.C., since April 26.)

You can view the excellent, super-illustrated exhibit brochure (or a smaller version, both .PDF files), as well as an online .PDF form of the entire exhibition catalogue. Stabiae was one of the resort towns for wealthy Romans clustered around the Bay of Naples, with large homes for the political elite, featuring large pools for fish in elaborate gardens and decorated with the best examples of fresco and other art, for the purpose of entertaining important guests in a luxurious and exclusive setting. In other words, it was like McLean, outside the District of Columbia here in the United States.

Like the neighboring settlements at Pompeii, Herculaneum, and Oplontis, it was buried in volcanic ash when Vesuvius erupted cataclysmically in A.D. 79. The town was rather quickly forgotten and left buried until the 18th century, when excavations began. The picture of Stabiae that we now have did not develop until more scientific investigations were carried out in the 20th century. A selection of objects, including a number of stunning detached frescoes, has been loaned by the Antiquarium Stabiano in Castellammare di Stabia and other museums, for this exhibit, which will travel from Washington to several American cities during the next three years:

This exhibit is of a negotiable size, not overrun with pieces. (There are beautiful images of all of the artwork in the exhibit, in these two .PDF files: Part 1 and Part 2.) The main attraction is the group of frescoes, not an extraordinary number of them, but beautiful examples of Roman fresco work from the 1st century AD, removed from the wealthy homes where they adorned the walls. If you don't think you will make it to Pompeii some day, you can at least see this exhibit. There are four exceptional but small panels, removed from the Villa Arianna in Stabiae to be given as gifts by the King of Naples in the 18th century, including Medea and the delicate, long-necked Flora, seen from the back, which was used as the cover for the poster (shown above). Images of Diana and Leda, other facets of womankind in mythology, were also on this villa's walls, along with the Seller of Cupids, a study of the business of prostitution. These frescoes now belong to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli.

From the villa rustica known as the Villa Carmiano are three frescoed walls from the triclinium, the sitting room, in which three couches in a U shape typically faced a view, in the case of Stabiae, of the Bay of Naples. Looking at this part of the exhibit, you get the clearest picture of how magnificent the decoration of these wealthy villas was. Unfortunately, the presentation is not particularly pleasing, since you are not allowed actually to enter the reconstructed triclinium but must peer in from the chained-off entranceway. The lighting is poor, and the floor is covered with rocks. It looks like a parking lot. (You can see how a triclinium was used to entertain in another fresco, the symposium scene from the Casa dei Casti Amanti in Pompeii.)

The presentation of the exhibit, overall, leaves much to be desired. The plain decoration has the feel of a wholesale warehouse (think Costco or Sam's Club, with some pretty things on the wall), and the two video presentations, shown on nice large screens, bleed sound obtrusively through the whole exhibit space. In short, I was happy to get away from the exhibit, rather than wanting to linger to look over the art one more time. A small fresco from Stabiae, showing a landscape with a seaside villa, has the feel of an idealized portrait, the narration informs us, but it may be a depiction of an actual villa in the town. Unfortunately, that small fresco is displayed on a wall, behind a raised exhibit space, where it is too far away to be scrutinized in any detail.

Planisphere of the Seasons, Villa San Marco, StabiaeA couple large frescoes are hanging prominently, in full view, but they are not the best examples, since they are fragmentary. Even so, the partially reconstructed Planisphere of the Seasons (shown at left), from the ceiling of portico 1 in the Villa San Marco at Stabiae, must have been a glorious depiction of the seasons. The allegorical depiction of Spring, a female nude floating in delicate blue drapery, although faded, is a marvel. See also the Pilade fresco, which has been pieced back together.

The only real freestanding sculpture in the show is a remarkable piece, the marble shepherd that gave its name to the Villa del Pastore at Stabiae, where it was found in the garden (shown in some interesting photographs in the exhibit). It depicts an aged shepherd carrying a young goat on his shoulders and a rabbit, that appears dead, in his right hand. This typical Roman bucolic subject was, of course, adapted by early Christian artists to portray Christ the Good Shepherd. The other sculptures of note are stucco relief panels, which also adorned many walls at Stabiae. Many of the examples in the show came from the bath complex attached to the villa rustica at Petraro. Presumably, stucco decoration was more resistant to steam than fresco. The baths were in the midst of a renovation when Vesuvius erupted, and some of the stucco panels in the exhibit show signs of being uncompleted, as if the artist planned to come back the following day. These panels focus mostly on male nude subjects, a Narcissus in the frigidarium and pugilists wearing only elbow-length boxing gloves.

The new excavation and preservation work at Stabiae has been undertaken by the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Project, created in 1998 as a partnership between the Superintendent of Archaeology at Pompeii and the University of Maryland. It apparently began with a graduate student at Maryland, Leonardo Varone, who wrote a Master's thesis on the idea of restoring an ancient Italian city. Professor of Architecture Richard Etlin now directs the RAS Project. Working at Stabiae is now one of the "Study Abroad" possibilities for University of Maryland students, especially in the School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation.

In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite will be at the National Museum of Natural History, in Washington, D.C., until October 24.

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