The scope of that tragedy staggered the whole of the Ancient World. The volcano that had long been considered extinct destroyed all the surrounding towns and villas, with life instantly coming to a halt. The tragic city of Pompeii, buried, along with smaller Herculaneum and many villas in the surrounding area, at Boscoreale, Oplontis and Stabiae, beneath layers of volcanic ash, was destined to play a special role in the history of humanity through the preservation of rich archaeological material for posterity.
The exhibition “Gods, Men, Heroes” is a large-scale project of the State Hermitage, the Museo Nazionale Archeologico in Naples and the Parco Archeologico di Pompei. It features more than 200 masterpieces of ancient art that also include items from the Hermitage’s own “Pompeian” collection. For the first time, museum visitors in Russia will be able to view world-famous objects – frescoes, mosaics, bronze and marble sculptures, exquisite works of decorative and applied art, articles of everyday use reflecting the religious side of Roman life and its high level of socio-economic development. Specially selected exhibits – unique pieces of glassware, bronzes, painted ceramic vessels, grouped in the display according to type, material and function – vividly evoke the ways of Romans who lived 2000 years ago, their daily routine and leisure hours, a style of life – modus vivendi – unimaginable without social occasions, visits to theatrical performances and gladiatorial fights.
The main section of the exhibition is devoted to the tradition of classical mythology that found reflection in the mentality of the Romans, their beliefs and conceptions of gods and of heroes that possessed superhuman abilities, usually as a gift of the gods, of the role that the various deities played in the destinies of people, and also to the images and symbols of mythology embodied in characteristic works of art.
The items in the exhibition include a marble Head of Jupiter that comes from the Capitolium, Pompeii’s main temple; a bronze statue of Apollo; a fresco with a depiction of Diana; a marble statue of Venus from the Villa Poppaea at Oplontis that may have belonged to Emperor Nero’s wife, Poppaea Sabina; a marble relief with Aphrodite and Eros from the House of the Golden Cupids in Pompeii; a fresco of Juno and Hebe from the Villa San Marco at Stabiae; Mars and Venus from the Pompeian House of the Garden of Hercules; a Nereid on a Sea Panther from the Villa Arianna at Stabiae (now in the Museo Nazionale Archeologico); Dionysus and Ariadne on Naxos from the House of the Golden Bracelet and Thetis and Hephaestus from Pompeii.
Splendid examples of murals – Hercules and Omphale from the House of Marcus Lucretius, Hercules and Nessus from the House of the Centaur in Pompeii and Hercules and Deianira from the Villa Arianna at Stabiae – tell about one of the best-known personages of classical mythology, whose cult was widespread in the Roman Empire. The image of another hero, the bravest of the brave, a participant in the Trojan War, features in the murals Achilles on Skyros and Achilles and Briseis.
Popular subjects for murals and mosaics included mythological scenes, gladiator fights, sporting competitions, hunting, depictions of plants and animals, still lifes, agricultural motifs and, sometimes, detailed realistic portraits of the Romans themselves. Murals incorporating relief elements built up with plaster to produce a three-dimensional effect were used extensively in public buildings, private houses, temples, tombs and even Roman military buildings. Some of them were placed on the wall as if they were pictures in frames; others occupied the entire surface of a wall or, on the contrary, a minor space in the centre of panels surrounded by ornamentation. Usually these images reproduced paintings by well-known artists or imitated their manner. The craftsmen had at their disposal special catalogues that they could show to clients as a guide to what might be done. Roman mural painters, or more probably their clients, preferred natural earth colours such as the darker shades of red, yellows, and browns. Blue and black pigments were also popular. The exhibition provides a splendid opportunity to see the whole range of techniques and styles used in wall-painting.
The most valuable product of the archaeological excavations of the Vesuvian towns and villas of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae is the material evidence of the daily life of the Ancient Romans that was practically unknown previously. In this regard, a special role is allotted to the part of the display devoted to people which presents sculptural and painted depictions of the Romans themselves, articles used in domestic life and leisure activities, and elements of the interior decoration of Roman houses.
A marble bust of a woman, sculptural portraits of men, a likeness of a woman painted in profile, a mosaic including a portrait of a Roman matron and a statue of Holconius Rufus allow us to picture the appearance of Roman nobles living in Pompeii in the 1st century AD.
Of especial interest are four frescoes from the praedia or urban estate of the wealthy Pompeian woman Julia Felix depicting scenes from the everyday life of Romans: Trading Pottery, Selling Cloth, Reading an Edict and The Punishment of a Pupil. They inform us in general terms about things that would have taken place at the forum on market day.
Specially selected exhibits represent items associated with the daily life of wealthy Romans – bronze scent vessels; tall candelabra for lighting a triclinium (the room in which the owner of a house received guests), a water heater with a lion’s head spigot and three swans with outspread wings on the edge of the burner; elements of interior decoration and marble tables. One of the most unusual items in this section is something that was usually placed in the atrium of a Roman house – a safe made of iron and bronze with elaborate and original locking mechanisms. Also on display here is a masterpiece from the collection of the Museo Nazionale Archeologico – the glass Blue Vase that was found in the necropolis of Pompeii in 1837. A separate section of the display is devoted to ordinary townspeople. The showcases contain all manner of tools that were used in the 1st century AD – balances, weights, picks, axes, hoes, sickles and rakes. One exhibit that is bound to catch visitors’ attention is a sign carved from limestone that was found at the House of the Sailor in Pompeii. It carries depictions of builder’s tools used at that time: a plumb bob, a trowel, tongs, clamps, a hammer, chisel, ruler and so on.
Testimony to the Romans’ fascination with the theatre comes in the form of a marble relief of a scene being performed, a fresco of An Actor with a Mask, an acroterium featuring a comic mask and an actual tragic mask from Pompeii. The populace’s passion for spectacles also included gladiatorial fights. Such acts of public combat and the significant role they played in the minds of Romans in the early imperial era are illustrated by a relief showing a battle between gladiators and also elements of their equipment: helmets and bronze leg guards.
Over 70 items in the exhibition come from the State Hermitage’s own “Pompeian” collection that numbers more than 300 artefacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum. It formed as a result of the close contacts that existed between Russia and Naples throughout the 19th century. The pieces from the Vesuvian settlements were a mark of the friendship between the imperial House of Romanov and the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies. Pompeian antiquities had a profound influence on Russian culture and art. The exhibition includes not only works that appear in the permanent display of the Hermitage’s Department of Classical Antiquities, but also objects from the museums stocks that are being put on public show for the first time. These are primarily examples of Roman marble and bronze sculpture and items made of ceramics, glass and ivory.
The exhibition curators on behalf of the Hermitage are Anna Trofimova, Candidate of Art Studies, Head of the Department of Classical Antiquities, and Andrei Kuznetsov, junior researcher in the same department; on the Italian side Valeria Sampaolo, Paola Rubino de Ritis and Luana Toniolo, under the scholarly guidance of Paolo Giulierini, Director of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli, Massimo Osanna, professor of the Università degli Studi di Napoli Federico II, and Alfonsina Russo, Acting Director of the Parco Archeologico di Pompei.
A scholarly illustrated catalogue of the exhibition in Russian – Bogi. Liudi. Geroi [Gods. Men. Heroes] – is in preparation. It will have a foreword by Hermitage Director Mikhail Piotrovsky and contributions by Paolo Giulierini, Alfonsina Russo, Valeria Sampaolo, Federica Rossi and Anna Trofimova.
A brochure in Russian by Alexander Butiagin has been produced for the exhibition giving a brief description of the history and archaeology of Pompeii, Herculaneum, Oplontis and Stabiae, and it will soon be followed by another on the decorative and monumental paintings of the Vesuvian towns by Yana Radolitskaya. Both authors are on the staff of the Department of Classical Antiquities.