Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii
Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA
Through August 13, 2017
Love it! Buses of New York City art lovers have disembarked in the hinterlands of Northampton, Massachusetts, because that's the only way they'll see the treasures of Oplontis. The Smith College Museum of Art is its only East Coast venue.
If Oplontis doesn't ring any bells, I'm sure that Pompeii will. Who doesn't know something of those fateful days in 79 A.D. in which Mount Vesuvius blew its cone-shaped stack and showed the Roman Empire that Mother Nature was stronger than its legions? Archaeology has been underway in Pompeii since 1599, which gave it a head start in the fame game, but it was not the only Bay of Naples locale to suffer destruction. As anyone who has been to Herculaneum–rediscovered in 1738–can attest, it's not even the most impressive of the region's ruins. The exhibit at Smith has a short computer-animation video that demonstrates the underground vents, lava flows, and ash fallout that affected settlements on both sides of the bay.
Among them was Oplontis, which is unique in that it was less of a town than a resort for the Roman well-sandaled. It would be the equivalent of unearthing Mar-al-Lago under twenty-four-feet of lava–but enough with fantasizing! The exhibit at Smith is a veritable portrait of the Roman 1%, hence the "leisure and luxury" handle of the exhibit's title is accurate. It is a sampling of objects, fragments, and products from what have been dubbed Villa A and Villa B, the parts of Oplontis that have been best excavated and studied thus far. (On-site archaeology continues and only half of Villa A has yet been uncovered.) When I say that it was a place for the wealthy, consider just this fact: 1200 amphorae (large storage jars) have been found–enough for over 40,000 bottles of wine. All of this for villas that were merely occasional seaside resorts. Remarkably, some gold, wood, and silver objects survived the heat and give us other glimpses of the sumptuous lifestyle enjoyed by the Roman patricians.
The greatest value of a smaller exhibit like that of Smith lies less in gawking over glittery baubles than in being able to get close to things you can only view from afar in Pompeii and Herculaneum: polychrome wall paintings, clay oil lamps, marble statuary, a storage chest for valuables, embossed copper, mosaic floors, etc. We also see hints of the plebeian lives that sustained the luxury: fish sauce and olive oil production, plaster production, haymaking, and other such tasks. Mainly, though, we get a small sense of what it would be like to live in the villas with their brightly painted stucco walls, the reflecting pools, and the physical designs that sought to bring nature into the home centuries before Frank Lloyd Wright began to imagine such things. And, of course, one cannot escape the social class implications–shown nicely is models–between the sprawling patrician spaces versus the small box-like quarters of servants and workmen. The primary emphasis, though, is on the wealthy. If ostentation bothers you, take some solace in the fact that Vesuvius did not discriminate. In one chamber (not on display) the remains of some fifty-four bodies were discovered huddled together, probably awaiting a sea rescue that never came. Insofar as can be determined, this collection of doom was of mixed social classes.
Another video shows us how the eruption killed. Many of us are familiar with photos of bodies encased in ash that captured individuals in the moment of their demise. Remember, though, that the lava is merely what preserved these horrible moments; it was not what killed them. Nearly all who died in 79 AD succumbed to the poisonous fumes, stone, and ash that rained down days before the first lava flows appeared in the streets. Many roofs collapsed from the weight of the ash, possibly trapping victims. Only in bad movies did death come from a rolling lava tidal wave!
This exhibit is superbly curated and it's relatively small. It's not a substitute for actually walking the streets of Pompeii or Herculaneum, but it allows you to take in a lot of information without becoming overwhelmed by scale. And, as noted above, you'll get a much closer look. Check it out. But you'll have to come to Northampton; it won't be showing in Boston, Chicago, New York, Philly, or any other city near you. Visit aut ignorantia