Bologna meets Naples thanks to the Roman painters of Pompei

For the ancient Greeks, painters were “property of the Universe”. The Romans on the other hand, much more interested in sculpture and architecture, considered them little more than artisans and didn’t even care about their names. I pittori di Pompei, the latest exhibition of Bologna’s Archeological Museum, aims at turning on the lights on the lesser known art of painting in Ancient Roman tradition, and celebrates the skillful artists that decorated the houses of Pompei.

When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, destroying the cities od Pompeii, Hercolaneum and Stabia, the course of history had a brutal freeze for all living creatures in the settlements, while future generations received the visual testament of how society looked in the very moment of the disaster. The paintings covering massive parts of the survived interiors are part of this visual lesson on art and history.

The exhibition, that debuted today at the Archeological Museum and will be on until March 2023, focuses on the relation between decoration, space and context and also on the role that the long neglected pictores (from pictor, the way painters were called in Latin) had in interpreting the relation between the various home owners and the space they inhabited, as well as in translating into images the myths, tastes, fashions and ideals of their time.

For the realization of I pittori di Pompei, Bologna’s Archeologica Museum collaborated with MANN, the magnificent archeological museum of Naples (a place that you just can’t allow yourself to miss if you visit Naples). Curated by Mario Grimaldi, it composes of seven sections.

The fist section, called Pictores, focuses on the image of the painter in the Roman age, showing how these artists were initially more prominent in the social scale, as a reflex of their role in Greek society, but subsequently lost status. It wasn’t rare, in the period when the Pompeii disaster occurred, to have slaves, freedmen and even (“and even”) women performing this job.

The second section covers the techniques and colours. These latter ones in particular actually represent a fil rouge of the entire exhibition, with that slightly dark, solemn, faded red dominating the space but also leaving room for pale, graceful aqua greens and delicate blues.

The third section spreads upon three rooms and evokes characters from the myths, with paintings representing Polyphemus and Galatea, Cassandra’s prophecy, the birth of Perseus, up until the Three Graces.

The fourth section is dedicated to music and theatre, the fifth to architecture and landscape, and the sixth to Xenia, aka still nature. The seventh and final section is called “Contesti” (contexts) and closes the exhibition itinerary by analyzing what themes were to be depicted in relation to a certain space, and what was the relation between painter/decorator and client/owner. The “sacred idillic landscapes” on display show local and exotic plants, fruits and animals, pastoral views but also reproductions of writing tools such as styluses, wax tablets and papyruses.

As with all the exhibitions hosted by this museum, the set-up is rich and articulated but never overwhelming, and children are given special attention with dedicated graphics on most of the sections and a special room where they can play hands on with painting, decorating walls, copying images and discovering the scale model of a domus. Something tells me that it won’t be only kids the ones crowding this room.

I Pittori di Pompei

Museo Civico Archeologico
Via dell’Archiginnasio 2, 40124 Bologna
September 23rd to March 19h 2023

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