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.