I wish I knew Latin as I see so many inscriptions it would be great to be able to read them. For the time being, however, I’ll be satisfied with appreciating the purely graphic qualities.
Ancient sarcophagi were often reused in later ages, particularly the medieval period. The crypts of the churches of Europe are filled with medieval and renaissance period ecclesiastics entombed in Greco-Roman sarcophagi from which the original pagan occupants had long been evicted. This huge sepulcher originally had on its lid a face of the Gorgon Medusa with her wild hair. It was meant to ward off evil from the tomb. But the Norman adventurer Roger I, who with Robert Guiscard conquered the island of Sicily in the 1170s and began consolidating the Kingdom of the Two Sicilys, took the coffin for himself, but removed the face of the Gorgon and replaced the pagan image with a cross. Strangely, they kept the unruly hair, I suppose because it had been reduced to a merely decorative frame.
This is a fresco from Pompeii, a portrait of Tarentius Neo and his wife. They owned bakeries and seem to have arrived at a comfortable level of financial stability. They are both shown as having a stake in the business, both contributing to it. She holds a stylus and a book, indicating she may be the accountant for the business, while he holds documents. The portrait shows them as equals, a young and good looking couple. It is quite likely that they did not survive the eruption of Vesuvius. This image is all that is left of them, but is seen by millions of people every year.
One of the aspects of Roman culture that is exceedingly rare but also extremely beautiful is glassware. Several museums have excellent collections, including the Getty Museum in Malibu. This is a bowl from Pompeii in the National Museum in Naples. One of the things that happens with glass buried for centuries is that it can develop an iridescence, a sort of rainbow-like mineralized coating, which has a particular beauty of its own and is often prized by collectors. It’s hard to pick it up in a photograph, particularly when the lighting isn’t very good, but you can see some indication of it here.
The building depicted in this fresco from Pompeii is the town’s amphitheater, where gladiatorial contests were held. However, somewhat amazingly, it depicts, like a sort of photographic journalistic record, an actual historical event, which was also recorded in text by the Roman historian Tacitus: “About this time there was a serious fight between the inhabitants of two Roman settlements, Nuceria and Pompeii. It arose out of a trifling incident at a gladiatorial show . . . During an exchange of taunts — characteristic of these disorderly country towns — abuse led to stone-throwing, and then swords were drawn. The people of Pompeii, where the show was held, came off best. Many wounded and mutilated Nucerians were taken to the capital. Many bereavements, too, were suffered by parents and children. The emperor instructed the senate to investigate the affair. The senate passed it to the consuls. When they reported back, the senate debarred Pompeii from holding any similar gathering for ten years. Illegal associations in the town were dissolved; and the sponsor of the show and his fellow-instigators of the disorders were exiled. (Annals 14.17; trans. by Michael Grant, The Annals of Imperial Rome [London: Penguin Books, 1973], 321-22). You can see that the fighting has moved out into the streets. A real riot in the city.
This is a detail of a fresco painting found at a villa at a site called Boscoreale. This small villa was, like Pompeii and Herculaneum, buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 CE. The frescoes from Boscoreale were particularly fine and particularly well preserved. The detail shows the crossed arms of a male figure, with the intricate folds of his cape, and the carefully articulated hands. On his left hand is a ring, which may be important to the meaning of the scene of which this is but a small part. The ring may signify his membership in a secret society or mystery cult. In the far right of the image is a swath of the characteristic cinnabar colour known sometimes as ‘Pompeian Red’, a distinctive colour of the Pompeian fresco painting.
Theater masks were decorative elements in Greek art and architecture, and that continued with Roman culture. This is a mosaic of a tragic mask found in Pompeii. It’s surrounded by grape vines, pomegranates, and other plants that denoted fertility in Roman iconography. In this representation, the face of the mask seems to react to the dense surrounding of the plants with a sort of horror, as if they are closing in on him. What’s really amazing is the pictorial detail realized in the medium of mosaic. The grapes, for example, are in varying stages of ripeness, some greenish and translucent and others with a purple tinge. The mosaicist has even managed to give the grapes a kind of shiny gleam.
Everyone likes to visit the ruins of ancient Greek and Roman theaters, but there is often very scant remains related to what went on in those theaters. Yet in fresco and mosaic, theatrical themes, including representations of actors and dramatic masks (see above) are quite common decorative motifs. This mosaic, from Pompeii, shows street actors and musicians. The artist has captured the moment perfectly, almost as a snapshot in the street. You can almost hear the beat on the tambourine and the pipes played in the background.
Rare bronzes were also found at the archaeological site of Pompeii. Among them, two bronze boys ready to start a footrace were found at the Villa dei Papiri. They can be found today in the National Museum in Naples, one of the world’s greatest collections. I went in close on this shot to get the boy’s concentration as he waits for the race to begin.
The most famous tomb fresco found at Paestum (see posts below) is the eponymous representation of a diver elegantly leaping from a masonry tower into a pool. It’s an uncommon image, simple and graceful, speaking to us of a moment of physical joy from 2000 years ago.
In one of the tombs discovered at the Greek site of Paestum in Italy, was a fresco painting of a symposium, a dinner where the diners reclined on couches. Here, men entertain men. On the right an older man flirts with a younger, while a man on the left couch keeps an eye on them, perhaps with a bit of jealousy. Beside him, his partner raises his kylix or drinking cup in the hope of getting a quick refill.
There are quite a few remaining Greek temples in the world, but you can’t walk around in them, except here at Paestum. The Second Temple to Hera has a complex design, and here you can see the unique double-tiered set of columns in its interior. There are few archaeological sites as beautiful as Paestum, and there aren’t too many visitors there, adding to the peacefulness.
The Amalfi Coast is one of the world’s most iconic coastlines, dotted with chic hotels and picturesque villages clinging to the precipitous limestone cliffs. This picture, taken just east of Positano and west of Amalfi, shows a hotel perched on its unlikely aerie. From there, it’s a quite a effort to get to the sea to swim, and even more of an effort to get back.