More Sex, Less Conspicuous Consumption: How D.C.'S National Gallery Got Pompeii Wrong

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In the year 79 C.E., Mount Vesuvius erupted, famously burying the ancient city of Pompeii under volcanic ash, where it lay unknown and undisturbed until the eighteenth century. But once the city was opened up to the light of day, first by accident and then by a frenzy of treasure-hunting, the horrifying drama of that apocalyptic event proved irresistible, even if some of the finds were judged disappointing. The terrible fate of the city's residents as they tried to escape, the beauty of the interior decoration of the more opulent houses, the temples and shrines, and the exhilarating obscenities that turned up frequently in both public and private places conspired to evoke a thriving pagan community. This was a community wiped out at the very moment that Christianity was beginning to make itself known in the Roman Empire. The city's apparently wanton lifestyle and the violence of its sudden end came to serve as a symbol of the inexorable rise of the new religion in the face of polytheism.

The last days of Pompeii provided the plot for operas by Pacini and Auber in the 1820s, to say nothing of challenges for stage designers with a penchant for spectacular pyrotechnics. A few years later, in 1834, Edward Bulwer-Lytton summoned up those last days for his lush Victorian novel, and with the advent of cinema the finale of Pompeii could appear before our very eyes. Thirty years ago, a blockbuster exhibition called Pompeii A.D. 79 put all this modern enthusiasm into perspective by tapping into a rich vein of morbid curiosity tempered by human sympathy. Deploying a towering chart depicting layers of pumice, the show demonstrated the horror of being buried alive, and it placed the city's high life and villas alongside the crude realities of shops, brothels, and latrines. Pompeii A.D. 79 revealed scholarship and sensationalism to be natural and congenial allies, as it moved grandly from one important venue to another--London, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, and New York. But it did not go to Washington, D.C.

Then the National Gallery put on its own Pompeii show in the nation's capital. This recent exhibition could hardly have been more different from the previous one. The title and subtitle of the Gallery's event, "Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture Around the Bay of Naples," explicitly signaled the difference. This was less about Pompeii than it was about luxurious living, above all in the villas overlooking the Bay of Naples considerably to the north and west of Pompeii. The works of art collected there, and the ostentatious display of wealth, have almost completely wiped out the sordid but more human dimensions of Pompeii itself. A whole introductory chapter in the catalogue is devoted to luxury, with a quotation from Coco Chanel at the head of it: "Luxury is a necessity that begins where necessity ends." Another chapter is devoted to interior gardens, and yet another to art collections.

This exhibition was evidently conceived and planned for an economic environment altogether unlike the one in which it opened last fall. A grim irony overtook the sponsorship that the Bank of America provided for the show, and the high-toned prefatory statement from the bank's embattled CEO, Kenneth Lewis, must remind him now of a happier time....

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