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Pompeii & the Greeks: a love divine

30.05.2017. Art & Culture

Naples was Greek before it was Roman. Its name derives from the Greek word Neapolis, ‘new town’, coined to distinguish it from the original 8th-century BC settlement of Parthenope nearby, which had been founded by Greek colonists looking to expand beyond their arid, crowded homeland to fertile new shores. Laid out on a rational grid pattern by Hippodamus of Miletos, it soon became one of the most important maritime cities and trading centres on the Italian peninsula, and a major cultural magnet.

Long after it was absorbed by the Roman world, Naples and the other towns that spread out along its Bay maintained their reputations as centres of refined Hellenic culture and learning. One only has to look at Pompeii’s House of the Faun, one of the most opulent of the Vesuvian town’s private residences, to understand this. Whoever the owners of this 2nd-century BC luxury villa were, they looked to Greece for inspiration through several generations – possibly because the family had an Aegean bloodline, but more likely as a way of affirming their social status and broadcasting their good taste. A Greek model lies behind the delicate bronze statue of a dancing faun that gives the House its name (which would have been visible to passers-by in the street outside).

But it’s the extraordinary Alexander Mosaic – arguably the greatest single work of art ever found in Pompeii – that most forcefully proclaims the owners’ identification with Greek culture. Dating from around 100 BC (but based on a third-century BC Greek original), it is preserved today, like the faun statue, in Naples’ Archaeological Museum; in 2005, a faithful copy made by a team of restorers in Ravenna was installed in the House of the Faun for the benefit of visitors to Pompeii. The mosaic depicts a battle of 333 BC between the armies of Alexander the Great and Darius III of Persia. It’s a work of extraordinary refinement and patient workmanship, made up of around four million tiny mosaic tesserae in coloured stone and glass.

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The connections between Pompeii, Naples and the Greek world are the focus of a small but fascinating exhibition in the archaeological site’s Palestra Grande, which runs until 27 November. Laid out in a series of themed spaces by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi and incorporating audiovisual panels into its narrative, the exhibition traces Greek craftsmen, architects, artists and decorative styles in Pompeii and surrounding towns in order, curators Massimo Osanna and Carlo Rescigno write, to bring out the “multiple and contradictory identities” present in a typical Roman urban conglomeration. The idea that Pompeii was a mono-cultural Roman settlement is false, they go on to point out: it was “a city founded on an Italic substratum bound together by Etruscan institutions and subject to widespread Greek influences”. The Greek language would still have been used in Roman-era Pompeii in certain religious rites, in literary circles, when talking of love and sex, and even when referring to female beauty treatments and bodycare.

Among the over 600 objects on display are ceramics, weapons, silverware, jewellery, sculptures from Pompeii, Stabiae, Herculaneum and other locations, inscriptions in Greek and other pre-Roman languages, and a helmet donated to the sanctuary of Olympia in Greece by Hieron, the Tyrant of Syracuse, in thanks for the naval victory of Cuma (the first Greek colony established in the Bay of Naples) over an Etruscan fleet in 474 BC.

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Running in parallel with the Pompeii show is another exhibition, ‘Divine Loves’ (Amori Divini), hosted by Naples’ Museo Archeologico from 7 June until 16 October. Around 80 works, from vases to wall-paintings, marble and bronze sculptures, gems and furnishings, trace the development of certain key Greek myths of divine seduction and human transformation, among them those of Daphne, Narcissus, Leda, Danae, and Hermaphrodite. In addition to Greek originals and Roman copies, another score of exhibits illustrate the ways such narratives were reinterpreted by later European artists, in particular those of the 17th and 18th centuries.

The exhibition is part of a shake-up of the Neapolitan museum under Tuscan director Paolo Giulierini designed to transform what has always been a fascinating but flawed display case into a world-class cultural institution. Visitor numbers have already increased by 50% since his nomination in October 2015. This being Italy, though, there’s a fly in the ointment: on 24 May, an administrative court overturned the nomination of Giulierini and four other Italian museum directors who were appointed as part of a major reform piloted by culture minister Dario Franceschini (the case was brought by a candidate turned down for one of the museum directorship posts). An interim director is in place while an appeal against the decision goes ahead.

Pompei e i Greci, Scavi di Pompei, Palestra Grande, 12 April – 27 November

Amori Divini, Museo Archeologico di Napoli, 7 June – 16 October

Photos © Anna Monaco

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