Sun. May 29th, 2022

A ripe red pomegranate rolls forward on a shelf, its stem pointing out into the room. A fleshy pear next to it swells, casting a dark, juicy shadow. These fruits could be those in Tantalus’ torment: irresistible, right there, yet perpetually out of reach. They were painted two millennia ago on the wall of a Pompeiian home, then buried for centuries in Vesuvian ash. Now, these miraculously preserved frescoes array themselves for our delectation, hinting at the taste of ancient Rome.

Pompeii in Color: the Life of Roman Painting is a compact but exhilarating exhibition at the Institute for the Study of the Ancient World, an NYU outpost in an Upper East Side townhouse. It reminds us that we’ve inherited a profoundly distorted sense of historical hues. The 1970s were not in reality overexposed; the second world war did not take place in black and white; gothic cathedrals were not originally stone-gray; and antiquity was not all-white. Time narrows all palettes.

Even if we understand this intellectually, knowledge has a hard time competing with the accumulated impact of pristine columns, austere goddesses, monochrome portrait busts, pale, sinewed heroes and nymphs with milky flesh. This show counters centuries of such whitewashing with full, vivid hues, allowing us to see a Roman city as Romans saw it, in all its flamboyant splendor.

Fragments from Pompeii frescoes show a vase, scrolls, a landscape and fruit
Still-life fragments representing vase, scrolls, landscape and fruit (1st century CE) © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples

Frescoes rarely travel. They are not just objects, but fragile pieces of wall pried from houses that were once filled with rock and fire and instant death. A loan of 35 of these treasures from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples hints at the variety of Pompeiian domestic decor. The paintings range from lofty mythological scenes to pieces of fruit on a table, covering gods and sinners, archetypes and eccentrics, warriors and dogs. Some of the paintings display the city itself, idealized, perhaps encouraging Pompeiians to appreciate their good fortune in living where they did.

A favorite of mine depicts a grouchy gray goose, fluffing its tail feathers in outrage and giving a bellicose jab of the beak. I looked for him again after I left and wandered into Central Park, where a flock of his descendants irascibly patrolled a lawn. Roman painters took obvious pleasure in the minutiae of their surroundings, rendering the plumpness of a fig, the plush red breast of a robin or a panoply of surprised-looking fish, all with endearing realism.

A scene from a Pompeii fresco shows a group of people in Roman clothing with a female painter at the center

‘Painter at Work’, fresco from Pompeii © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples

Some mythological subjects doubled as portraits. Paris, the prince who abducted Helen and sparked the Trojan war, stars in side-by-side frescoes. In both versions, he sports the traditional Phrygian cap and carries a load of arrows, like the one he shot into Achilles’ heel. Yet in every other way these two characters are different men: one has curly red hair, dark asymmetrical eyes and a large puffy nose; the other is more conventionally handsome, with light irises and chiselled cheeks. Both were probably modeled on real Pompeiians – household members, perhaps – infusing everyday existence with the glow of legend, and the other way around.

There’s something theatrical about this mingling of realism and storytelling, as if everyone were living onstage. In one roundel of Hercules and Omphale, a collection of visual clues reveals the characters’ names and helps us follow the plot. Hercules wears the Dionysian crown of vines, meaning he had a couple of rounds too many. Omphale has borrowed the bleary hero’s lionskin and club. But in the details, these two belong more to our world than in any epic. He’s pink and jowly, his eyes clouded and beard mussed. She reaches out past the picture’s frame, as if groping for an escape from a tricky situation.

A masked face appears in the center of an arrangement of grapes and vines

Mask amid bunches of grapes and vines, Pompeii © Photographic Archive, National Archaeological Museum of Naples

A group of people in Roman dress sit and stand eating, drinking and conversing

Banquet scene with inscribed words, Pompeii

These painted scenes enriched and commented on the life of those rooms, giving us a peek into households’ mixture of hedonism and aspiration. If you visit the archaeological site, it takes an imaginative leap to summon the smells of cooking, the sounds of conversation or the slap of sandals on tile. But seeing just a couple of the sensual, vibrant images here – abraded and faded but real – evokes a world in which fleshly and mythological exploits belong in the same panoply of human drama.

In one panel, a little winged Eros, chubby rear turned to the viewer, squirms under Aphrodite’s motherly stare. The scene is beautiful, poignant and amusing. The boy has let his arrow fly in an unwise direction, unleashing some amorous chaos. Comely Goddess Mom, having confiscated the whole quiver, purses her lips in reproach. And yet she has also curved her long body into a languorous S and just may be suppressing a smile. What makes these paintings so bewitching is their suppleness and wit – that, and the rupture between the pleasant urban life that nurtured them and the horrific calamity that preserved them.

To May 29,

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