I went to the “Last Days of Pompeii” exhibit at the Getty Villa the day before Thanksgiving. Pompeii has intrigued me for years. I knew from the website that this was not mainly a collection of ancient artifacts but a showing of modern (18th century on) art works interpreting the story of the 79 A.D. Vesuvius eruption and the destruction of Pompeii and its neighbor towns. There was a cabinet of artifacts that had been presented to one of the popes in the 19th century: lava fragments and articles of terra cotta, glass, and metal. But the vast majority of pieces were 18th and 19th century portrayals of what people knew (or thought they knew) of the town, its ancient life, and its destruction.
Those centuries were a time when Europe was enamored of everything classical; the era of Shelley and Keats, the discovery of the Rosetta Stone, Napoleon’s forays into Egypt and the raiding of pyramids for mummies and artifacts. So when the ruins of Pompeii were found in 1748, they captured the world’s imagination. Some artists were able to go there. Some who couldn’t go used reports from travelers or archaeologists and generous doses of imagination and artistic license. Painters, sculptors, and writers created fanciful romantic images of the city before, during, and after the calamity.
The exhibit is divided into those periods: Before, During, and After, which also constitute its subtitle: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection. “Decadence” refers to some people’s belief that God punished Pompeii for its immorality, hedonism, division among rich and poor, abusing slaves, and rejecting Christianity. Some of the art shows opulence, indolence, gladiatorial combat, and “Cupid sellers” that symbolize prostitution. “Apocalypse” refers to the eruption itself, with depictions of the eruption, chaos and commotion, and folks fleeing toward the Bay of Naples. Interestingly, “Apocalypse” also has records and pictures of damage to Pompeii from WWII U.S. and British air raids. “Resurrection” is about the rediscovery of the ruins in the 18th century and the worldwide fascination that has never really died down.
Some of the paintings and sculptures are almost epic. I had to back from many of them to get the scope of their portrayal of the volcanic fireworks, the grand buildings (in “Decadence”) and grand ruins (“Resurrection”). I didn’t recognize all the artists—I’m more familiar with American 19th century landscapists; but some of the paintings vaguely put me in mind of (English-born American) Thomas Cole’s “Course of Empire” series.
Maybe the most recognized object from Pompeii is the dog that was engulfed by ash and toxic vapors. Nothing organic survived the centuries, but the hardened ash preserved the dog’s shape, curled up in mortal agony. The exhibit contains a cast made from the original mold taken from that cavity in the ground. The eruption lasted about 6 hours, and it’s estimated that 2,000 people died from injuries, superheated sulfurous vapors, or suffocation. The cast of the dog in the exhibit was offered as a symbol of all the victims of Pompeii, and most modern people can identify with a small animal and use it as an object for their sympathy for all the victims.
If you’re looking for scads of artifacts, this isn’t it. I would have liked to see more. But it was fascinating to see different ways the world has envisioned Pompeii since people stumbled on the ruins in the 1700s. The exhibit pointed out factual mistakes in some of the art, or instances where people just made it all up and did the best they could. Still, Pompeii and what we know about it is the only existing “day in the life of” snapshot of ordinary life in the Roman Empire, and I’m one of the countless people who is happy to see even imperfect interpretations.
After you see the exhibit, you can go to the museum store and pick something to take home: books about Pompeii and Vesuvius and about volcanoes in general, postcards of some of the paintings, model volcanoes, and more. I have attempted to read the famous 19th century novel “Last Days of Pompeii” by Edward Bulwer-Lytton, but the style and verbosity are almost impossible for modern readers to wade through, so I was glad to find an abridged version among the offerings.
The Getty Villa is a perfect setting for exhibits related to ancient cultures. It contains the home of its founder, J. Paul Getty (not open to the public) and buildings he had designed to house the museum. The style is neo-Classical, with Corinthian columns, marble floors, fountains, an herb garden, and inner and peristyle gardens bordered by the building, whose walls are painted with faux columns and tall vases. There is a small pool with carp—hopefully not meant to evoke the pools of vicious lamprey eels that some of the richest, cruelest, most depraved and self-absorbed Pompeiians kept for pets, for food, and for a kind of “sport” that isn’t fit to mention on a family website. The Villa location is spectacular, on the east side of Hwy 1 overlooking the Pacific. Pompeii was near the coast but not right on it, but maybe some of the ancient hillside homes of the rich and famous around the bay of Naples had similar views.
The Pompeii exhibit ends on January 7. Among the other temporary exhibits, I saw the epic Roman sculpture of the Lion Attacking a Horse and a collection of ancient glass called “Molten Color” that was exquisite. I didn’t have enough time to see all the temporary exhibits, and only sampled some of the permanent ones.
Visitors need to reserve a time spot in advance on the museum website or by phone. (This is not the same procedure as the Getty Center). There is a $15 parking fee and no entrance fee to the museum. http://www.getty.edu/visit/
There is no left turn from Hwy 1 (the PCH) into the Villa. Approaching from the north, pass the main coastal business area of Malibu and watch for the Getty Villa sign on your left, on the hillside. Continue to the next traffic light, where you can turn left and maneuver your way back to Hwy 1 north. From Hwy 101 southbound, the most direct way to this part of Hwy 1 is either Las Virgenes (which becomes Malibu Canyon) or Topanga Canyon.