Professor’s Research Becomes a National Gallery of Art Exhibition

Posted: December 3, 2007 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

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An exhibit at the National Gallery of Art opening next fall, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples, is being curated by Carol Mattusch, Mathy Professor of Art History.
Photo by Carol Mattusch

By Devon Madison

Consider Mount Vesuvius. Were it to erupt, how would people react? One could easily imagine the masses fleeing in the shadow of the spewing volcano. However, during the 18th century, visitors to Naples did just the opposite. In fact, the thrill of viewing a Vesuvian eruption was so attractive that ascending the active volcano became an imperative for tourists visiting the area.

This curious behavior will be one of the many phenomena documented in an exhibition next fall at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. The exhibit, Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples, will explore the art, luxury and culture around Pompeii from Roman times up to the devastating eruption of Aug. 24 AD 79; and then in modern times, following the rediscovery of the ancient sites in the 18th century.

Carol Mattusch
Carol Mattusch
Photo by Evan Cantwell

Carol Mattusch, Mathy Professor of Art History and curator of the exhibition, first came up with the idea for the exhibit while writing a book about the largest private villa found to date in the Bay of Naples region, the Villa dei Papiri. The villa was named after the more than 1,000 papyrus rolls discovered there in the 1750s. Herculaneum, the ancient Roman town near the villa, was buried to a depth of about 70 feet by the pyroclastic flow from Mount Vesuvius. In addition to the papyrus rolls, this villa has yielded a large number of ancient sculptures.

Fascination with Ancient Art

Prior to the 1700s, there were roughly 70 famous ancient statues in Italy. In the 18th century, well-diggers around the Bay of Naples began turning up sculptures. At the same time, the Spanish Bourbons had taken over southern Italy and Sicily. Charles VII began excavating around the Bay of Naples; in the first 10 years of excavating at the Villa dei Papiri alone, about 90 sculptures were found.

Thus began a worldwide fascination with ancient art. At the same time, the Bourbons had transformed Naples into a major cultural capital, second only to Paris. It was also around this time that Vesuvius had begun to erupt with vigor and frequency, drawing tourists to Naples in droves.

When Mattusch decided to work on an exhibition specializing in high art originating from or influenced by ancient Greece, she expanded her research from a single villa to include finds from 20 or more villas and fine Roman homes, and from sites that include Pompeii, Herculaneum, Misenum, Pozzuoli, Stabiae and Oplontis. She conducted her research in museums around the Bay of Naples.

“I began looking for a list of names that reflect collecting around the Bay of Naples, as opposed to making another exhibition about life in an ancient Roman city,” she says. “My plan is to have [the exhibit] be about collectors, their collections of fine art and their luxury arts.”

As her ideas for collectors started to take shape, something interesting happened closer to home. In 1996, incoming Mason president Alan Merten was moving into Mathy House, the president’s house, with his family. There was art already on the walls, but the Mertens wanted to bring in their own decorative furnishings. So Mattusch was handed a collection of gouaches — almost all of which coincidently depicted 19th-century eruptions of Mount Vesuvius.

This collection of what had been souvenirs bought by early travelers to Naples sparked her interest in the area and in the rediscovery of antiquity around the bay. It also informed her thinking about how to communicate the significance of the rediscovery.

“The Pompeiian artifacts that were found in the 18th century literally initiated the study of ancient art and made their way quickly into the first scholarly books about art history,” she says. “So these finds played a really formative role in the study of antiquity.”

Gallery Exhibition Reflects Opulent Lifestyle

The exhibition, which will run from October 2008 until March 2009, will feature 120 antiquities and roughly 40 more objects from the 18th and 19th centuries. The rich variety of works on display, including sculptures, paintings, mosaics and the luxury arts, will give the viewer a greater understanding of the life of leisure associated with these opulent seaside villas.

The exhibition will also weave together two themes: the influence of Classical Greece upon Roman art and culture around the Bay of Naples, and the impact of the rediscovery of these Roman sites upon the art and culture of the modern world.

Among the objects on display will be a wall-fresco of the Three Graces, a mosaic showing Plato’s Academy, an entire room’s walls decorated with images of Apollo and the Muses, and a silver mirror adorned with a lively scene of cupids fishing. Four prized marble statues made of imported Greek marble, discovered in the port city of Pozzuoli during the 1980s, will be on display for the first time in the United States.

Not only will the exhibition feature art, but the exhibition space will be laid out as rooms are in a villa, inviting the viewer to a more intimate perspective of villa life. Museum goers will be treated to luxurious interiors and to the interior fountains and gardens of the villa.

As the museum visitor emerges from the context of the ancient villa, the exhibition space becomes one of the 18th century, with antiquity rediscovered at the foot of a blazing Mount Vesuvius, visitors flocking to Naples and artists recreating the ideas and the look of classical antiquity for an admiring market.

Mattusch has taken great care to make sure the exhibition will intrigue the audience. “If you can just think of what questions to ask, you can come up with some really interesting ideas.”

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