Sarcophagus Fragment, Roman, ca. 240-250 CE, The Art Institute of Chicago

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Enjoying "Playful Idleness"

Several years ago I went to Madison to see In Stabiano at the Chazen Museum of Art. The exhibit showcased frescoes and artifacts from ancient Stabiae, which was destroyed in the 79 CE eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The exhibit was a delight; gorgeous frescoes covered the walls with marble sculptures and bronze artifacts interspersed, all in Madison care of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. There was even a recreation of a triclinium with the original wall paintings assembled in their correct order so when you entered, you actually got the feeling of being in the ancient room. I'm not aware of any attendance figures, but I can only imagine that In Stabiano was a success for the Chazen. Though seeing such artifacts was a rare treat for me living in Wisconsin, the residents of Italy can see them at their leisure. The New York Times reports (see below) that Ravenna is home to a new exhibit entitled Otium Ludens (Latin for "playful idleness") which features nearly 200 wall paintings, many of which I was fortunate enough to see at the Chazen. The exhibit looks like yet another great collection of Roman art that will be displayed around the world; the New York Times states that the exhibit will travel from Ravenna to Toronto, Melbourne, Sydney, Madrid and Valencia.

Ancient Stabiae is located on the Gulf of Naples on a cliff overlooking the sea. The views are as amazing today as they were in antiquity and it is no surprise that Stabiae was the playground of the rich and famous. Several palatial villas have been excavated there and the quality of art discovered rivals any in the Roman world. Stabiae started out as a small Oscan port in the 6th century BCE. After its sacking in 89 BCE by Sulla during the Social War, Stabiae was reconstructed and began its life as a rich resort town. Stabiae remained a retreat for wealthy senators and the Imperial family until its destruction in 79 CE.
Though many works of art have been discovered in Stabiae, it is often overshadowed by its more famous neighbor Pompeii. In fact, the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius destroyed many towns in the area and all have produced amazing archaeological finds. The area to the south of Vesuvius bore the brunt of the destruction; it is here that Pompeii, Oplontis and Stabiae lie. Herculaneum, which lies to the west of the mountain, was also destroyed. Fortunately for the residents of nearby Neapolis (present day Naples), the mud and pyroclastic flows of the eruption traveled away from their ancient city.