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Smith College exhibit showcases ancient Roman art buried by eruption of Mount Vesuvius (w/video)

  • "Victory (Nike) Alighting", center, Pentelic marble, first century CE, is flanked by two over-life-size busts of Hercules in a new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, "Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii". —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College Professor of Art Barbara Kellum speaks to about 40 people during a special preview of the new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, “Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii.” GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College Professor of Art Barbara Kellum, left, speaks to about 40 people during a special preview of the new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, "Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii." In foreground is "Fountain Figure of a Centauress with a Lyre", white marble, first century CE. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • One-, five-, and ten-pound weights, marble, first century CE, used for commercial trading. At left, Detail of "Victory (Nike) Alighting", Pentelic marble, first century CE. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING PHOTOS

  • "Head of Venus (Aphrodite)", right, white marble, first century CE, and "Portrait of a Boy", white marble, 41-54 CE. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College Professor of Art Barbara Kellum, left, speaks to about 40 people during a special preview of the new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, "Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii" on Wednesday, February 1, 2017. At right are three amphorae, or shipping containers, from first century CE (from France, Italy and Spain) generally used for transporting liquids like wine or fish sauce. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Smith College Professor of Art Barbara Kellum, center, speaks to about 40 people during a special preview of the new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, "Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii", on Wednesday, February 1, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • "Stucco Molding Fragment with Vegetal Motif", 45-79 CE, from the exhibit GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of "Victory (Nike) Alighting", Pentelic marble, first century CE. It is part of a new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, "Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii". GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • A bronze duck, detail from a "Strongbox" that was found in "Villa A". The strongbox, of iron, silver, bronze and copper, is from the 3rd to 1st century BCE, so was already an antique when Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D. It is part of a new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, "Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii". —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Detail of "Victory (Nike) Alighting", Pentelic marble, first century CE. It is part of a new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, "Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii". —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • One-, five-, and ten-pound weights, marble, first century CE, used for commercial trading. These are part of a new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, "Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii". —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • “Lamp with the Goddess Victory,” pottery, Tiberian-Flavian period. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Three amphorae, or shipping containers, from first century CE are from Southern France, left, central Italy and Bay of Cadiz, Spain. The amphorae are generally used for transporting liquids like wine or fish sauce. GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Deborah Seidel of New York takes a closer look at a set of three lamps displayed in a new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, "Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii". Seidel and about 40 others were part of special preview of the new exhibit lead by Smith College Art Professor Barbara Kellum on Wednesday, February 1, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • This model of Villa A was created by Victoria I at Harvard University and is based on all the evidence available at the time of its making in 1991. It is included in a new exhibit at the Smith College Museum of Art, "Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii". —GAZETTE STAFF / KEVIN GUTTING

  • Strongbox dating from the 2nd Century BC. Lynley— Photo courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

  • Incense burner Lynley— Photo courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

  • Statue of Aphrodite, found at a villa in the ancient Roman site of Oplontis. Lynley—Photo courtesy of Smith College Museum of Art

  • The Villa Poppaea, or “Villa A,” at the ancient Roman site of Oplontis. Wikipedia



Staff Writer
Thursday, February 23, 2017

It’s one of the most famous stories from ancient Rome: how the town of Pompeii was buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79, then rediscovered centuries later, its excavation revealing a well-preserved slice of life from the Roman Empire.

Just down the road from Pompeii was another site in the Bay of Naples that along with other communities disappeared beneath up to 28 feet of volcanic debris. Yet this one went largely undetected until the 1960s — and the artifacts and art recovered from it have remained almost entirely out of public view.

But at the Smith College Museum of Art, a new exhibit is shining a light on the ancient site of Oplontis, a suburb of Pompeii that included a massive seaside villa at one time owned by Nero, the fifth emperor of Rome, and his second wife, Poppaea. Oplontis also included simple homes and small businesses that made and distributed wine and other products.

“Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii” has gathered hundreds of items that have been recovered from the site, including art, coins, jewelry, day-to-day items like lamps and bowls, and a massive strongbox dating from the 2nd century BC.

The exhibit has been jointly organized by an archeology museum at the University of Michigan and Italian archeological officials, and it’s appeared at the University of Michigan, at a museum in Bozeman, Montana, and now SCMA — the first time the items have ever been seen in their totality, says Smith College art history professor Barbara Kellum.

As Kellum explained in a tour of the exhibit shortly before it opened Feb. 3, the modern city that’s grown up around Aplontis, Torre Annunziata, does not have the funding or space for a museum to house the Oplontis items, though smaller numbers of them have been exhibited at times in different Italian museums.

“That gives [SCMA] a wonderful opportunity to show a much fuller picture of life in this corner of [ancient] Rome,” said Kellum, who specializes in Roman art and architecture. “And it also provides a great contrast between the lives of the wealthy and more ordinary people.”

Lives of Luxury

The exhibit is divided into two sections: one includes objects from what’s called “Villa A,” the massive home also known as Villa Poppaea, and the other showcases material found in “Villa B,” the commercial/residential complex located about 300 yards from Villa A.

Villa A does indeed epitomize a good example of the vast — some would say grotesque — amount of wealth the Roman aristocracy accumulated. Kellum says 99 rooms have been excavated so far at the villa’s site — and that represents just about half of the building’s full size, she noted.

It was, Kellum said, essentially a massive vacation home, construction of which likely began around 50 BC; construction and then the maintenance of the huge estate, and the servicing of the wealthy owners and their guests, involved “many, many slaves,” she added.

The Smith exhibit includes numerous pieces of art found at the site: statues and busts; fragments from extensive, detailed frescoes on walls that Kellum said were 18 to 20 feet high; mosaic and marble floor coverings. Some of the busts, such as one of Hercules, are remarkably well preserved.

Those busts and statues, including one of Aphrodite, would have been located both inside and outside the villa, Kellum noted, including on the perimeter of the building’s massive atrium, alongside a large swimming pool, and in carefully cultivated gardens.

So far 50 statutes and busts — of gods, male and female centaurs, and unidentified people — have been discovered in Villa A, Kellum said.

Parts of the villa can be visited and are a popular tourist site in Italy, and the SCMA exhibit includes some photos from the area. The show also includes a replica, at slightly smaller scale, of a “cubiculum,” a type of smaller, private room in the villa that would have been used for important meetings, reading and “lovers’ trysts,” as exhibit notes explain. 

Workaday Rome

While wealthy Roman families came and went from Villa A (during a ferocious argument in AD 65, Nero kicked a pregnant Poppaea to death, according to some accounts), the people living and working in and around Villa B had a more ordinary existence. Much of the surrounding area was covered in vineyards, Kellum says, and the making, storing and shipping of wine was an important business.

The exhibit includes a number of amphorae — again, in remarkably good shape — the clay vessels used for storing and transporting wine and other liquid or viscous materials such as olive oil and fish sauce.

According to exhibit notes, some 1,200 amphorae have been found at the site, enough to store about 30,000 liters of wine — the equivalent of 40,000 modern bottles of vino.

The modest workshops, businesses and storerooms on the ground floor of Villa B were topped by small apartments, sometimes just single rooms, Kellum said, where many of the business owners and workers likely lived.

At least one business was doing quite well, or liked to project an air of success. One of the largest items found at the site is a massive strongbox, perhaps three feet high and five feet long, that’s made of lead and copper and embossed with gold and silver decorations. The box, and its intricate locking system, was likely made by Greek artisans in the 2nd century BC, Kellum noted.

“This would have been kept in the front of the [business] to say to customers ‘We are people of means,’ ” said Kellum. “It would have held a lot of money, jewelry and other valuables.”

While the Smith exhibit mostly consists of art and artifacts, it also relates some of the human drama that played out in Oplontis and other towns in the area when Vesuvius erupted, killing perhaps 2,000 people. While Villa A appeared to be unoccupied when disaster struck, 54 skeletons have been found on the site of Villa B, many of them clustered in one area.

Historians and architects believe the dead, including a woman who was eight months pregnant, had come down to the shoreline, hoping for a seaborne rescue.

“The suggestion is they all died waiting for a ship that never arrived,” said Kellum.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

“Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii” is on view at the Smith College Museum of Art through August 13. For information on the exhibit and for prices and visiting hours, visit smith.edu/artmuseum.