Drawing mainly from the photo archive of the Getty Research Institute, which counts over two million photographs of art historical contents, the exhibition focuses on visual documentation of the archaeological sites of Pompeii and Herculaneum from the time of their rediscovery in the mid-18th century through our time in the early 21st. Early prints and photographs of the sites offer a vivid contrast to contemporary images, which show the passage of time and the recent interventions undertaken to preserve this delicate ancient environment—which, after being buried for eighteen centuries, is now exposed to fluctuating environmental conditions in the open air.
When they were buried by ash and rock from the eruption of Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pompeii and Herculaneum were busy commercial centers serving the imperial capital of Rome, 150 miles to the north, as well as lavish countryside villas that were home to people connected to the Roman emperor by family, political, or business ties. Some of these houses and villas were beautifully decorated with wall paintings and mosaics, and the exhibition features photos and prints of some of the most renowned of these interiors, such as the House of the Tragic Poet, the House of the Faun, and the House of the Vettii in Pompeii, and the House of the Bicentenary and the Villa dei Papiri in Herculaneum. The images in the exhibition highlight the art that enlivened their walls and floors with mythical stories, landscape views, or elaborate decorative elements.
Named after its mosaic depicting the rehearsal of a satyr play, the House of the Tragic Poet was decorated throughout with scenes from the epic poems of the Iliad and the Odyssey. French archaeologist Raoul Rochette (1789–1854) was among the first to study and document this house, and he created detailed watercolors that reveal its interiors and wall decorations. Among these early prints, one shows a roofless space with Vesuvius in the background, yet with the original colorful frescoes still adorning the walls of what used to be the main courtyard and reception hall.
The photograph below, by contrast, shows the same interior space photographed toward the end of the 19thcentury.
Another plate in Rochette’s publication shows the whole northern wall of the house, featuring on the center the small lararium, or family shrine, placed in the garden area.
A recent photo of the same wall shows a dramatic transformation over the past 150 years. The light blue in the center of the wall has lost its tone and part of the stucco is gone, and a corrugated roof and structural mesh have been added to preserve what’s left of the interior spaces.
Another section of the exhibition presents the work carried out by the Getty Conservation Institute in Herculaneum at the House of the Bicentenary in collaboration with the Herculaneum Conservation Project (HCP) and the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei.
The exhibition—which offers an interesting complement to the Getty Villa show The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection—is on view at the Italian Cultural Institute in Westwood through November 2, daily except Sunday. Admission is free.