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Lifestyles of Pompeii's Rich and Famous at LACMA

April 28, 2009 |  8:00 pm

Plato "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples," opening Sunday at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, gives a familiar theme a new twist that may appeal to Southern California's celebrity watchers. The exhibition of frescoes, sculptures and decorative objects that adorned splendid vacation houses before they were buried by an eruption of Mount Vesuvius focuses on lifestyles of an ancient culture's rich and famous.

Romans who built lavish homes and gardens around the Bay of Naples constructed a Greek-style fantasy land, steeping themselves in classical Greek culture as they looked to an earlier Golden Age for inspiration and confirmation of their status. The first Roman collectors of Greek art brought it to Italy as booty. But by the 1st century AD, when villas rose around the Bay of Naples, the collections that filled them were mostly composed of Greek-style objects made to order by Greeks who had immigrated to Italy to participate in a thriving market.

What to make of these artworks? Kenneth Lapatin, associate curator of antiquities at the J. Paul Getty Museum and guest curator of LACMA's exhibition, offers some insight into some of his favorite pieces:

"This epitomizes how the Romans took Greek culture, in this case philosophy, and turned it into something decorative," he says of "Plato's Academy" (above), a mosaic made for the floor of a Roman villa. "We don't know who commissioned it or whether they were real exponents of Platonic philosophy, but they were trying to project an engagement with, and veneer of, Hellenic culture. Yet if you look at it further, you see that the philosophers are surrounded by a border of masks. What do tragic and comic theatrical masks have to do with Plato? It's kind of mix and match, a nice Hellenic mixture. Things like this served as discussion pieces. You would sit around the mosaic and talk to your friends about Plato and the other philosophers---or just spill your wine on it."

Pompeii marble "This is one of just eight marble plaques of its type and one of the two that are best preserved," Lapatin says, moving on to "A Greek, a centaur, and a Lapith woman" (left). "It's an amazing work. The line drawing is so wonderful. If you just look at the underarms of the centaur, you see crosshatching and highlighting, like an Old Master drawing. Look at the human torso and the way the abdominals are done. We have lost Greek drawing and this seems to be a deliberate reference to that, first in the technique of monochromatic drawing and second in its style. It's very much in the style of the 5th century BC, the Golden Age of Pericles and the Parthenon."

For a fuller account of the exhibition and more comments from Lapatin, click here.

-- Suzanne Muchnic

Images: "Plato's Academy" and "A Greek, a centaur, and a Lapith woman." Photo credit: Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli. 

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