Art News Roundup: Pompeiian Pooch Edition

Despite the fact that they were first excavated beginning way back in the 18th century, the Ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum are continuing to yield fascinating finds for archaeologists, historians, and art lovers alike.

A find which could prove to be of enormous historic, if not artistic, significance has just been announced as part of the Great Pompeii Project, a major excavation, conservation, and restoration effort that began at the site in 2011. Archaeologists have found a wall with a bit of graffiti, written in charcoal, bearing the date October 17th. The writing is believed to be a note written by a workman who was in the middle of a home renovation project. If that’s correct, then the date of the destruction of Pompeii, which is traditionally placed on August 24, 79 AD, is wrong, and the history books will need to be rewritten.

Meanwhile, other excavators working at the site have uncovered an outdoor room which the press is now referring to as “The Enchanted Garden”, thanks to the magnificent frescoes contained within it. The room, or more properly the lararium, was where a wall shrine to the household spirits was kept. The family who lived in the house would make daily offerings here, in order to keep these bearers of good fortune about the place, and it was also a pleasant place to sit, protected from the elements but within reach of flowers and other plants.

While these spaces were common in Roman residential construction, this one is particularly interesting not only for its well-preserved beauty, but also for the presence of a dog-headed humanoid in one of the frescoes. It’s possible that he is the Egyptian god Anubis (or an individual wearing an Anubis mask). You may recall from your history books that Egypto-mania hit the Romans when Cleopatra came to live with Julius Caesar in 46 BC. No word yet on when this lararium will be open to visitors.

Dog

Watching the Watchmen

Regular readers will recall that last week I reported on how art conservation pron has become a thing in the museum world, attracting scores of visitors who want to see art experts at work on cleaning and restoring works of art. Well now, in what may be the most singular example of this trend, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam has announced that Rembrandt’s greatest masterpiece, “The Night Watch” (1642), a detail of which appears below, will be undergoing a very public cleaning and conservation, beginning next summer. For those of you who won’t be in Holland at the time, not to worry: the museum intends to livestream the restoration on the interwebz.

Remb

Reunited Ruffs

Speaking of art conservation and the Dutch, should you find yourself in Ohio between now and early January, you’ll definitely want to check out “Frans Hals Portraits: A Family Reunion”, which just opened at the Toledo Museum of Art. The exhibition brings together three paintings (a pre-restoration detail of one of the canvases appears below) by the great Dutch portrait painter Frans Hals (1582-1666) of groups of figures which, subsequent to cleaning and restoration, art historians have only just realized were portions of a large-scale portrait painting of members of the Van Campen family. The original painting was likely chopped up at some point after Hals’ death as a result of damage, with the incongruous bits painted over by a later restorer to make the pieces more commercially marketable. After Toledo, the show will head to Brussels, and later to Paris.

Hals

Measuring De Morgan

If you love computer-generated geometric designs such as fractals, and happen to find yourself in the UK in the next couple of weeks, then you’ll be interested in catching an exhibition that will be closing soon at the Guildhall Art Gallery in London on the work of the great English decorative arts designer William De Morgan (1839-1917). De Morgan is one of the most important of all Arts and Crafts era artisans, thanks in part to his designs for the company founded by his friend and contemporary William Morris (1834-1896). While De Morgan is often thought of as being fascinated with the exotic in his chargers, vases, and tiles, such as the ones shown below, bringing in references to the Middle Ages, India, and Persia, this new exhibition takes a look at the mathematical studies which helped him to come up with and execute geometrically complex designs by hand, without the benefit of CAD. “Sublime Symmetry: The Mathematics Behind William De Morgan’s Ceramic Designs” closes on October 28th.

Morg

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Classical Color: Take A Virtual Tour Of A 1st Century AD Roman Villa

We often think of the Classical world as a monochromatic place. This is partly because ruins and statues from the ancients have, in many cases, come down to us in shades of white and beige, utterly devoid of color. However the false idea of a neutral historical palette influenced centuries of architects and artists, who mistakenly believed that our ancestors lived in whitewashed surroundings, and reinforced this false impression on the public. This is clearly in evidence here in the Nation’s capital, which has two centuries’ worth of neutral-toned monuments, residences, and official buildings designed in a classically-inspired style.

In fact however, our ancestors loved bright colors, and used them on just about everything, including their own homes. If an Ancient Egyptian or Athenian were to turn on HGTV, and see a house flipper painting the interior and exterior walls of a house in whatever shade of gray Restoration Hardware is currently promoting, they would be appalled. In their day, the use of bold color in the home was an indicator of a person’s wealth and status.

With the passage of time, paint eventually fails, if surfaces are not maintained regularly or protected from the elements. Think of your own home, where in as little as a few years you may notice that the exterior paint color has started to fade. So in order to see just how colorful an ancient home would have been, we have to use a combination of research, technology, and imagination.

For the past 16 years, the Swedish Pompeii Project has been analyzing and recording as much data as possible to virtually recreate a single city block in the city of Pompeii, the Roman town that was buried by a massive eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD.  Contained within this block were luxury homes, gardens, and several shops, including a bakery, a tavern, and a laundry. The juxtaposition of these structures may seem odd today, when we typically zone residential and commercial structures into different areas. However if you visit historic neighborhoods here in the U.S., you will often find luxurious, historic homes located in the same block as small businesses.

As part of the Project, researchers from the Swedish Institute in Rome in collaboration with technical wizards at Lund University have been using a combination of hand-held digital scanners, drone photography, and other resources to come up with a virtual recreation of what the buildings in this city block probably looked like at the time Vesuvius blew its top. If you’ve ever watched the HBO series “Rome”, then these buildings will look somewhat familiar to you. For many however, I suspect that the results will be rather surprising.

The first completed recreation that one can virtually visit is the home of a wealthy Pompeian banker by the name of Caecilius Iucundus, a man who was clearly not afraid of color. The walls of Caecilius’ home office, for example, are covered in mythological scenes set against a blood-red background, while his banqueting room (shown below) is painted a bold, mustard yellow. The central courtyard of his house contained a small reflecting pool, which caught the rainwater from the large opening in the timber-framed ceiling above, and the courtyard itself was surrounded by an inlaid floor, as well as walls covered in colorful frescoes of flowers and birds.

As luxurious as this home appears to be, keep in mind when looking around that Caecilius was not a member of the Roman aristocracy. He had to work for a living, and was possibly a self-made man. Thus, this home of a well-to-do banker, which to modern eyes appears to be rather grand, would have been nothing compared to the even more grandiose homes of the upper classes. Those who lived on inherited wealth and the income from their estates employed people like Caecilius to manage their wealth for them. One can only imagine how boldly colored their homes would have been.

More virtual reconstructions from the Swedish Pompeii project are to be forthcoming, including two other luxury homes located on the same block as Caecilius’ villa. Given what we have already seen, we can reasonably assume that these houses will turn out to be brightly colored and decorated as well. (Personally however, I’m more curious to see what a 1st Century AD laundromat would have looked like.)