Monday, September 13, 2010

Pompeii focus of new lectures series from The Teaching Company

When I received the latest catalog of courses from The Teaching Company I saw that they are now offering the 24-lecture series "Pompeii: Daily Life in an Ancient Roman City".  Pompeii has intrigued me since I was a young girl back in the 50s.  I don't even remember when I first learned about it since classical history was not covered in the school curriculum of my small hometown.  Besides being mesmerized by images of the beautiful frescoes, mosaics and sculptures that had been recovered from the site, I was admittedly rather morbidly drawn to the images I had seen of the plaster casts made of the hapless residents who met tortuous deaths that fateful day in 79 CE.  

For some time I thought Pompeii was a recent archaeological discovery, not realizing that it was actually rediscovered clear back in 1599 CE. I could hardly believe that despite the more enlightened thinking of the Renaissance period, architect Domenico Fontana, appointed to resume excavations in Pompeii, after working on St. Peter's under Pope Sextus V and erecting the massive Egyptian obelisk in front of the cathedral, actually chose to cover the find near Naples back over because of the "shocking" nature of the sexually explicit images and artifacts that he found there.  Wholesale plundering of the site began in 1748 under the auspices of  the King of Naples, Charles of Bourbon.

It was not until Giuseppe Fiorelli took charge of the excavations  in 1860, though, that techniques were developed to create those casts of the victims of Pompeii by pouring plaster into voids in the ash layer that were found to contain human bones.  

This bronze sculpture of Eros is contorted
by the heat from the volcanic blast of
Vesuvius.  Photographed at Boscoreale
by Mary Harrsch.
I had never seen any of the casts myself until only recently when I attended the "Pompeii: Stories From An Eruption" exhibit at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C. It included a number of casts, the most poignant being that of a child killed when a staircase collapsed in the House of the Golden Bracelet. 

When I finally got a chance to visit Italy for the first time in 2005, my friends and I rented a car and drove down to Pompeii for a day of exploration.  We entered through the main gate and began exploring the necropolis before we got to the remains of the villas.  Most of the artwork I had read about had been removed for conservation and display, much of it in the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli in downtown Naples so it was a bit of a treasure hunt searching for any small frescoes or particularly interesting mosaics that had been left behind.  

The bronze sculptures of a wild boar surrounded by hunting hounds that you see in the courtyard of the House of the Citharist as well as the bronze faun that you see in situ at the House of the Faun are actually reproductions but they help you envision the respective villas in their original state.


The infamous fresco of the well-endowed Priapus is still there though (or it was at least as late as 2005). It was smaller than I thought since most television programs that feature it normally zoom in for a startling closeup. Apparently, it was plastered over at one point by excavators for modesty's sake and was not rediscovered until 1998 when it was revealed by a heavy rain.  As for human casts, I saw only two victims on display in the site itself at the time.


When I returned to Naples in 2007, I entered Pompeii through a side entrance and quickly found myself exploring one of the public baths.  Somehow I had missed it on my first visit.  I also had a chance to visit Boscoreale, a neighborhood about a kilometer north of Pompeii where aristocrats lived in luxurious villas and a villa rustica is being currently excavated.  The museum at Boscoreale is small but quite interesting.  There I saw casts of a poor watch dog and a boar caught by Vesuvius' blast as well as a round loaf of Roman bread burnt to charcoal. 


In 2009, I was thrilled to attend the exhibit "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around The Bay of Naples" at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  I learned about the resurgence of archaism in Roman art that was discovered in Pompeii and the other villas surrounding Vesuvius and wrote an article about it for Heritage Key.  If that exhibit is still making the rounds I would highly recommend visiting it if it should make an appearance in a museum near you.


I am sure the new lecture series will point out even more details that I've probably overlooked and give me background information on the structures I admired there.  The lectures are presented by Dr. Steven Tuck, Associate Professor of the Classics and Art History at Miami University.


"After earning his B.A. in History and Classics at Indiana University, he received his Ph.D. in Classical Art and Archaeology from the University of Michigan. He held the postdoctoral Arthur and Joyce Gordon Fellowship in Latin Epigraphy at The Ohio State University.

An esteemed teacher, Professor Tuck was named a University Distinguished Scholar in 2005 and an Outstanding Professor in 2007, 2008, and 2009 at Miami University. He has served as a national lecturer for the Archaeological Institute of America and was a regular lecturer for the Continuing Education program at the University of Evansville, presenting lectures on topics including ancient social and political history, and archaeology.

Professor Tuck is the author of many articles featured in international journals on topics such as the spectacle schedule at Pompeii, the decorative program of the amphitheater at Capua, and triumphal imagery across the ancient Roman world. He is the author of Latin Inscriptions in the Kelsey Museum: The Dennison and De Criscio Collections." - The Teaching Company

The lectures cover the history of the area clear back to its early settlement by the Etruscans, as well as the region's geology and commercial development including Pompeii's thriving wool industry and viticulture.  Dr. Tuck explores the upper class homes including the Villa of the Papiri as well as the House of the Vettii and the House of the Tragic Poet.  He also spends one lecture on the Praedia of Julia Felix, a collection of gardens, baths and shops that served as sort of a Roman country club of the period.  These remains are some of the most complete that I saw in Pompeii and some of the gardens have now been replanted by site restorationists.  When I saw the fresco of a thoughtful Roman woman (above) from the Villa di Guilia Felice in Pompeii at the Museo Archaeologico di Napoli, I wondered if it was a portrait of Julia herself thinking about all the money she was making with her various enterprises!

A slideshow of my images from Pompeii and the art recovered from Vesuvian ash:




Learn more about Pompeii!

The Complete Pompeii   Pompeii: The History, Life and Art of the Buried City   Pompeii (The Roman World)   Ancient Mysteries - Pompeii: Buried Alive   The Fires of Vesuvius: Pompeii Lost and Found    Pompeii: The Living City  Bodies From the Ash: Life and Death in Ancient Pompeii   Pompeii: Public and Private Life (Revealing Antiquity)   Pompeii: The Life of a Roman Town   Pompeii - The Last Day/Colosseum - A Gladiator's Story

1 comment:

MjH said...

Great article, Mary! Very interesting read and you are very fortunate to have had the chance to visit Pompeii - I myself on my first (and only so far) visit to Italy focused time in Roma - can't wait to go back and check out Pompeii sometime!

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