Stills from a fly-through video of The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii from the exhibition Pompeii in Color at New York University (courtesy 3D Francesco Gabellone & Techné S.A.S; all other images courtesy Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples)

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.

 A fly-through video of The House of the Tragic Poet in Pompeii from the online exhibition Pompeii in Color (courtesy 3D Francesco Gabellone & Techné S.A.S.)

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.

Painter at work. 1st century CE, Fresco, House of the Surgeon, Pompeii, National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 9018

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.

Banquet scene with inscribed words. 1st century CE. Fresco, East wall, central section, House of the Triclinium, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 120029
Detail view, with highlighted inscription. Banquet scene with inscribed words. 1st century CE. Fresco, East wall, central section, House of the Triclinium, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 120029
Achilles on the Island of Skyros. 1st century CE. Fresco, House of Achilles or House of the Skeleton or House of Stronnius, cubiculum u, north wall, central section, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 116085
The Three Graces. 1st century CE. Fresco, Masseria di Cuomo – Irace, Pompeii. National Archaeological Museum of Naples: MANN 9231

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.

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Sarah Rose Sharp

Sarah Rose Sharp is a Detroit-based writer, activist, and multimedia artist. She has shown work in New York, Seattle, Columbus and Toledo, OH, and Detroit —...