On that fateful day in August of 79 CE, when Pompeii was seized unawares by the sudden eruption of Mount Vesuvius, it abruptly transitioned from a living city to a still-capture of ancient life. Many explorations have been made to understand aspects of life in Pompeii, but a new online exhibition hosted by New York University (NYU) brings us a scintillating close read on the fresco art of the city’s villas. Titled Pompeii in Color, the exhibition is organized by the National Archeological Museum of Naples, and presents 35 frescoes, all originally from Roman homes. For now, the exhibition is only available digitally as its physical opening has been delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the exhibition’s title suggests, there is a refreshing kind of dynamism that comes from viewing ancient history in living color. Innovative research methods are constantly being applied to relics of the past, offering contemporary viewers new ways to relate to the lives of our predecessors. In addition to presenting a wealth of Pompeii’s fresco art — including dynamic mythological scenes, landscapes, still lifes, astonishing trompe-l’oeil, portraits, and genre scenes — Pompeii in Color features a virtual reconstruction and fly-through of The House of the Tragic Poet (Pompeii, Regio VI, Insula 8.3-5), extrapolated from a wooden model preserved at the National Archaeological Museum of Naples.
Pompeii in Color is inspired, at least in part, by the excavation of the so-called House of the Painters at Work, which revealed a major unfinished redecorating project. Included among the artifacts were pots of pigment, mixing bowls, tools, and containers of plaster, as well as traces of scaffolding, alongside a half-finished fresco. This discovery provided crucial insight into the Roman painting process, capturing details about the technique of buon fresco.
With this emphasis on the technique, context, and content of the villa frescoes, Pompeii in Color has insights to offer on the practice of ancient painting, as well as the tastes and values of the Romans who commissioned them.
The exhibition also closely examines specific paintings, breaking down the visual linguistics and symbolism within the tableaux. For example, a banqueting scene that appeared in the House of the Triclinium renders the attendant servants as physically smaller than the reveling banqueters. The close view also reveals text scratched into the fresco: “SCIO” (“I know”) above one drunken party guest; “BIBO” (“I drink”) above another; and “VALETIS” (“Be well”) above the head of an old man. Even ancient Romans, it seems, were not above the occasional meme.
Update 3/23/22 12:45pm: The exhibition can now be viewed in person at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World at New York University. The galleries were previously closed due to COVID-19.
Editor’s Note, 02/01/2022 4:36pm EDT/EST: A previous version of this article stated that a model for the House of the Tragic Poet is housed at the Mann Museum in Montgomery. The piece is at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. The article has been corrected.
Special Edition: 🖌️Artists’ Signatures ✍️
In this special edition, we investigate what artists’ signatures actually mean, and the fascinating results reveal the multifaceted history of this curious phenomenon.
What Is a Signature in the Internet Age?
As a cryptographic unit for record-keeping, an NFT can be seen as analogous to a signature or an autograph.
The Public Theater Explores the Hurricane Katrina Diaspora in shadow/land
Written by Erika Dickerson-Despenza and directed by Candis C. Jones, this lyrical meditation on legacy, erotic fugitivity, and self-determination is on view in NYC.
The Meaning of Ancient Greek and Roman Artisan Signatures
What did a signature mean in the ancient world, and how much can we trust what they seem to tell us?
Michelangelo’s Signature and the Myth of Genius
Michelangelo served as a stellar example for future artists who sought status and economic independence.
The Rubin Museum Presents Death Is Not the End
Tibetan Buddhist and Christian works of art made across 12 centuries explore death, the afterlife, and the desire to continue to exist. On view in NYC.
Uncovering the Photographer Behind Arshile Gorky’s Most Famous Painting
As we pursue photographer Hovhannes Avedaghayan a fascinating picture begins to emerge of him and the world of which he was part.
100 Years of Artist Signatures in a Detroit Club
The beams in Detroit’s Scarab Club act as a guest book of sorts, carrying a wealth of stories and history, including signatures by Diego Rivera, Marcel Duchamp, Margaret Bourke-White, Isamu Noguchi, and others.
When I Am Empty Please Dispose of Me Properly
Ayanna Dozier, Ilana Harris-Babou, Meena Hasan, Lucia Hierro, Catherine Opie, Chuck Ramirez, and Pacifico Silano explore the myths of the American Dream at Brooklyn’s BRIC House.
The Myth of Agency Around Artists’ Signatures
In an art world built on shifting sands, artists’ signatures become symbols of agency for some, and relics of the past for others.
The Women Artists Commemorated on an NYC Sidewalk
The signatures of Rosa Bonheur, Mary Cassatt, and six other historical women artists are engraved on a small stretch of sidewalk on Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
Pratt’s 2023 Fine Arts MFA Thesis Exhibition Is On View in Brooklyn
The two-part exhibition features the work of 41 graduating artists across disciplines, including painting, sculpture, printmaking, and integrated practices.
Met Museum Repatriates 15 Objects to India
The sculptures were all at one point sold by the disgraced art dealer Subhash Kapoor.
Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Placed on Russian “Wanted” List
Tolokonnikova has long been a thorn in the side of Vladimir Putin’s regime.