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Naples Unlocks the Past

23.07.2019. Naples & around

When London’s British Museum organized the sell-out exhibition ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ in the summer of 2013, it was striking that several of the artifacts so generously loaned by the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii were not on public view in their country of origin, but were housed in storerooms. 


It’s a common problem the world over, with most major museum holdings far exceeding their available display space. In Naples, however, the sheer abundance of the material accumulated over more than three centuries of archaeological digs is only one of the issues. The other is a history of mismanagement, staffing problems and funding shortages that have rendered not only lesser items but also a good few masterpieces invisible for decades.  




This is all changing under Paolo Giulierini, the dynamic director of Naples’ Museo Archeologico Nazionale (MANN). Since his appointment in 2015, this treasure trove of Classical art and culture has come on in leaps and bounds, refurbishing and reopening sections that had been closed for decades or were hardly ever open, inviting contemporary artists to dialogue with works in the permanent collection, and organizing exhibitions like the 2019 show ‘Canova and the Ancient World’, which brought in a record 300,000 visitors. Under Giulierini ‘s watch, MANN has even launched a video game based around its collections, Father and Son, which has been downloaded over 400,000 times.

Giulierini’s latest coup is the reopening, in July 2019, of the museum’s Magna Graecia collection, hidden from view since 1996. Focusing on pre-Roman Campania and Southern Italy, the collection charts the complex multi-ethnic world that existed here before the Roman conquest and continued to determine the life of cities like Pompeii, where Romans and Greeks rubbed shoulders with residents from North Africa, the Middle East, and further afield.




Among the highlights of the more than 400 works on display in the Magna Graecia rooms is a series of painted slabs of dancing women found in a tomb from Ruvo in Puglia, dated to between the late 5thand early 4thcenturies BC (see main picture above), and the Altamura Krater, a mid 4thcentury BC vase recently restored with the help of the Getty Museum that bears a rare portrayal of the dwelling of Hades and Persephone in the underworld.


In the nineteenth century, mosaics and precious marble inlays from Pompeii and other sites in the Bay of Naples were incorporated into the floors of the fourteen rooms that house the collection. Restored and cleaned, these domestic and religious artworks – which include a remarkable trompe l’oeil tondo in opus sectilefrom the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum – are not cordoned off. Instead, visitors are given special overshoes that ensure the protection of the masterpieces underfoot.




Giulierini, whose early experiences on the job included watching a MANN security guard swallow the cigarette he’d been smoking as il direttore walked into the room, has more than doubled the number of visitors to the museum in the four years since he took on the job of director, from 280,000 in 2015 to over 600,000 in 2018. Among his aims for the future is the opening of a café, restaurant and auditorium, and a museum store in the basement which will be directly connected to the Museo station of the Neapolitan metro. Watch this space…


Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli

Piazza Museo 19, Naples

Open 9am-7.30pm, closed Tuesday


Photos © Roberto Salomone





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