From Marvel’s mischievous Loki chasing a time traveler through her to Flaming Lips of Oklahoma City recording a love song about it, the destruction of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii continues to capture the cultural imagination.
In AD 79, the volcano of Vesuvius erupted, blanketing the resort and the nearby town of Herculaneum with devastating layers of lava, ash and rocks.
But beneath the ruin, an unexpected benefit was buried.
“The eruption preserved Roman villas and luxury homes until excavations began in the 1700s. These excavations uncovered vast, richly colored frescoes painted on the walls of homes and public buildings in all towns. Said Michael J. Anderson, president and CEO of the Oklahoma City Art Museum.
“At the start of the excavations, many paintings were cut from the walls and taken to museums. … We are delighted to provide the incredible opportunity to be immersed in the daily life of the ancient Romans.
The OKC Museum of Art is the only North American venue for the new exhibition “The Painters of Pompeii: Roman Frescoes from the National Archaeological Museum of Naples”.
For the first time, the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy has sent stunning selections from its impressive collection of Roman antiques to North America as part of the new historical exhibit – and the exhibit is on display exclusively at the museum art from Oklahoma City before returning to Europe.
“The Painters of Pompeii: Roman Frescoes in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples” includes more than 80 ancient Roman artifacts and works of art that were preserved by the eruption of Vesuvius, including more than 60 of the rarely seen wall paintings mentioned in the title.
“When you think of Roman art, you probably usually think of architecture or famous landmarks like the Colosseum and Pantheon, or you think of Roman sculpture – breathtaking sculptures of gods and goddesses or emperors. But what you probably don’t think of – that was the art form that was really ubiquitous… in the Roman world – is painting, ”said Rosie May, director of curatorial affairs and engagement. audience at the OKC Museum of Art.
“It is a much more fragile medium – it is typically fresco painting … which is pigments on wet plaster and does not survive well – except that now we have here a cache of ancient Roman painting which comes from what has to be one of the most famous natural disasters in history. ”
In ancient Rome, the art of painting could be found in homes, temples and businesses, May said.
“We look at Roman painting through the painter’s lens, so who they were, how they worked, where they worked, what kind of subjects they painted,” she said. “We have tools and pigments that miraculously survived the eruption, which tells us a lot about how the Romans worked, and these wouldn’t have survived otherwise, if they hadn’t been. buried in the eruption. ”
The Greek and Roman gods and goddesses were popular subjects for the frescoes, with mythical subjects ranging from familiar names like Hercules and Achilles to lesser-known tales (at least to contemporary Americans) of the Graces or Selene and Endymion.
“You often hear about the ancient Roman gladiatorial games. What you hear less but which was almost as popular was the theater – and Pompeii had two theaters,” May said, pointing to a mural depicting a trio of actors. . “The kind of interesting thing about Roman theater – and it’s the same with Greek theater – is that everyone wore masks. So that’s how you describe the character if you put on a mask. . “
The fresco painters sometimes also made their colleagues the subjects of their work.
“It’s great: it’s a painting by a woman painter. And it’s really cool, because women could be painters in ancient Rome,” said Bryn Schockmel, curator of the Art Museum of the OKC, highlighting one of the works in the first room of the exhibition.
On display in the Special Exhibitions Gallery on the first floor of the downtown OKC Museum, the remarkably well-preserved frescoes appear against the walls painted in vivid tones like Romeo O Romeo Red, Jungle Adventure Green, Star-Studded Blue. and Millionaire yellow.
“These are the colors they would have used in their homes. It sounds pretty bright to us… to us, but they would have had their walls painted bright red, bright yellow,” Schockmel said.
A diagram in the exhibit details how houses in ancient Rome were built very differently from what the Oklahomans would recognize.
“The Roman house was really closed,” May said. “There were no windows to the outside, and the rooms were small. So to open them they painted them floor to ceiling and then they had mosaics on the floor … and plasters and various things. ceiling moldings. ”
Like today’s homeowners, however, the ancient Romans repainted their homes according to trends.
“The copy wasn’t seen in the negative way we see today. There wasn’t so much the idea of having an original piece of art, you just want a piece of folk art. , if your neighbor had the exact same paint, that wasn’t a bad thing, ”said Schockmel.
Since frescoes adorned much of the walls of ancient Roman houses, Schockmel compares them to wallpaper. But since the nearly 2,000-year-old paintings were in fact made in plaster and cut into the walls during their excavation, they are much heavier than a sheet of wallpaper or works on canvas, creating a challenge. for the OKC Museum Exhibition Design Team. .
“The heaviest weigh 330 pounds… and some are over 6 feet tall,” Schockmel said.
The frescoes that weigh less than 100 pounds were mounted using sturdy wall brackets made at OKC, while the larger ones are displayed on plinths built by museum preparer Randall Barnes.
In addition to safely exhibiting the works, Schockmel said the goal is to create an immersive visual experience that will transport people to Pompeii before its volcanic disappearance.
“I looked at pictures of it all for months and months and months as we prepared and did our research… and then when they arrived they are so different from the pictures. You just can’t appreciate in a book like you can do in person, ”she said. “The colors of these are just fantastic. I really think people can really feel… the vibe.”
Running until October 17, the exhibition is accompanied by special programming like guided tours, lectures and the pop-up Italian restaurant Café Pompeii by Patrono at the Museum Cafe, said Becky Weintz, director of marketing and communications. of the museum.
“It’s a really amazing opportunity to see these really rare historical works,” she said.
‘The Painters of Pompeii: Roman Frescoes from the National Archaeological Museum, Naples’
When: June 26-Oct. 17.
Or: Oklahoma City Museum of Art, 415 Couch Drive.