Here for us in Pittsburgh, when our local museums stage non-art-specific traveling exhibitions, they are usually held at the Carnegie Science Museum, rather than the Carnegie Museum of Natural History (CMNH)/Carnegie Museum of Art (CMOA). I think this is for space reasons, as the science museum has a dedicated exhibition hall, while the other two usually have to displace something to house another.
So this is how exhibitions that are perhaps more history than science end up there—though we’ve also discussed the loaded cultural history of placing people in a natural history museum, so there’s not exactly a perfect fit for cities like ours that don’t have a dedicated history museum. We do have the truly delightful Heinz History Center, but this is largely dedicated to American history and local history in particular, so we’re still scrambling about when the National Archeological Museum of Naples (Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli) offers to send us nearly two hundred Pompeiian artifacts on loan for six month. But the Science Center did a bang up job of tying the exhibition into Vesuvius and vulcanology generally, so kudos to them.
Anyway, I’ve been meaning to do a write up on the exhibition since I saw it in December with one of my dear friends and her family, but I had been more focused at the time in engaging her wonderfully precocious children with the exhibit than I was of promulgating my “angle,” as it were, on what to write about it here. So, with another few short weeks left before it flies back to Italy, I decided to go back and walk the exhibition again and take all of you along with me. But rather than just the straight tour, I thought I’d jog you back and forth across Pittsburgh between ancient Pompeii and pieces from the other two museums, to connect Roman history to the present, the recent past, and everything in between.
Because I think that’s where museums are at their most potent, as carriers of communication, exchange, and ultimately, community growth. There’s still this image of non-science museums as static places, but the best modern museums understand that to stand still is to die. I’m able to do this entry because the Museo Archeologico was willing to share what they have with an institution whose community may never get to go to Naples or Pompeii, and because while it has pieces from nearly every era, CMOA has always seen itself as first and foremost an art museum dedicated to the art of tomorrow and visions of what that future will look like. As for the CMNH, future conservation is as their mission statement as education. All of this entails conversations between people and institutions that are both easy and difficult, but museums give us all a place to ask those questions and have those conversations. What could possibly be more important—or interesting?
The Pompeii exhibition is structured to teach the visitor about life in the city at the time of the 79 AD eruption, which it does by introducing them to the smallest unit of life in Pompeii: the Roman villa. I think this was a really clever way to display the artifacts—many of which were common household objects—placing them in situ to give visitors a better understanding of their owners and use. As you’ll see throughout my photos, both to preserve the artifacts as well as mimic the natural light (or lack thereof) in different parts of the house, some of my shots will be very dark. However I really liked this, because again, it was a very immersive way to present everyday life at this historical period to someone not otherwise familiar with it. I also apologize for the inevitable reflections from the protective glass in some of these shots—the variable light wrecked havoc on that too and I minimized it as much as could.
So, as I tried to show all of you in my entry on the Villa of the Papyri in next door Herculaneum, one enters the exhibition through doors meant to approximate the villa gates into a space designed to be the villa’s atrium. At the center, you have the impluvium, in which the exhibition has placed one of the more dramatic pieces they received, a statue of a naked, bathing Venus. This style is usually referred to as a Capitoline Venus, after one of the first copies of this type found on the eponymous hill in Rome, and as you can see in comparison with that one, they are virtually identical. This style is another variation on Praxiteles’ Aphrodite of Knidos, though distinguished from the more strict Roman copies of the Greek original by Venus’ loose hairstyle with its messy topknot.
The Capitoline Venus, though, is very different from CMOA’s plaster cast of a 5th century Roman copy of the so-called Aphrodite of Fréjus. This is usually classed as the goddess in her role as Venus Genetrix, the ancestress of the Julii, represented both by the apple in her hand (the golden apple she wins from the Judgement of Paris that will lead to the Trojan War and the migration of the Trojan survivors to Italy) and her more demure (for her) dress. Even if your great x10 grandmom is the goddess of sex, you don’t necessarily want her getting out of the bath for the family picture.
As befitting a space meant to represent the atrium, the exhibition also had a case of small bronze gods and lares to represent the lararium, the altar of the household deities. I thought of the lares when I crossed over to the CMNH and was looking at the museum’s extensive collection of katsinim from the Hopi, Zuni, and other Pueblo tribes of the American southwest. Katsinim (plural of the Hopi katsina, also spelled as kachina, katchina, and katcina), like lares, are both spirits connected to the natural world and to tribal ancestors venerated, if not strictly “worshipped” in order to bring prosperity to the household or village. As you can see by the exhibition’s lares, with their cornucopias, lares were often associated with agricultural wealth, as the Pueblo katsinim are understandably connected to the rain and corn cycles of the arid southwest as much as the lares guarded the wheat fields of Italy. And both the lares and katsinim, because they exist more as spirits than gods, are virtually innumerable, though katsinim have much more defined personalities than the largely blank lares.
Among the lares, we also find Isis in one of her Roman guises as Isis-Fortuna. She retains her Egyptian feathered crown, but she wears a Roman stola and, like the lares, carries a cornucopia representing prosperity. Fortuna herself is the Roman iteration of the Greek goddess Tyche (Τύχη), who also was often depicted with sheaves of wheat—agricultural wealth being the greatest form of “fortune” at the time. As we’ve seen before, Isis became a blended deity with many Greco-Roman goddesses, but her association with Tyche/Fortuna comes from her Egyptian role as the goddess thought to have power over fate through the strength of her heka. This in turn is represented by the tyet (Middle Egyptian: tjt), the so-called “knot of Isis,” which symbolizes “welfare.” Over at the CMNH, we find Isis in another guise the Romans would also adopt as their own: as Isis Lactans, the divine mother of Horus. We’ll get back to Horus in a bit…
Moving out of the atrium space, which for sticklers of Roman architectural accuracy also includes mention of the otherwise absent tablinum (and some associated objects like an inkwell and keys), visitors move into a room meant to represent the villa’s peristyle, the columned garden. As more open than the atrium, you observe the brighter lighting. In addition to several human sculptures, many of the garden artifacts remind one that people of all times apparently have a fondness for odd animal sculpture as a decorative statement.
Most of these you could still find in a Pittsburgh neighborhood yard (okay, maybe not the goat), and even the half-naked shepherd boys also on display might merely be given wings to make them modern cherubs. This also made me think of the fun little animal flourishes Romanesque and Gothic cathedrals often have on their façades, which I’m sure are explained by the Catholic Church as serious allegories, but that everyone knows were probably just the sculptors having a good time.
Leaving the peristyle, visitors are back in the darker lighting of the interior villa, specifically the triclinium, the dining space. More than any other part of the exhibit do we have primarily household objects. The bronze legs of a foldable table; a bollitore, a vessel designed to boil or steam water in; a cratere, a large container for diluting wine; and beautiful 1st century Roman glassware. But household objects are no strangers to the CMOA collection either. Indeed, a large part of the museum’s department of Decorative Arts and Design is dedicated to many of the same kinds of objects—be it strikingly similar glassware, or modern interpretations of something not shown in the Pompeii exhibition, but would have been an integral part of any triclinium: the reclining couch or chaise lounge.
As visitors exit the triclinium, the exhibition’s design shifts from the insular world of the villa into the greater town of Pompeii, with a space meant to represent the market and commercial district. Here, we have more frescoes, including one of Aeneas being tended for a wound by one of his companions, Iapyx. Notice how the version of Venus standing behind Iapyx is wearing a loose drape similar to the kind the Venus Genetrix wears, because that is the role she has in this scene as Aeneas’ mother, and by extension, the mother of the Roman people. We also see in the market a fresco of Horus in his Greco-Roman form as the child god Harpocrates. As we talked about before, notice how he has his finger raised to his mouth, just as he does in his in his Egyptian form as Horus the Child in the CMNH’s collection. The snake to his right lapping his tongue in the fountain is likely supposed to be the Greek monster Typhon, who became the Greco-Roman equivalent of Set. What I find interesting is in this fresco, Horus and Set are not portrayed as particularly antagonistic, and appear much closer to their roles as the balanced Fighter Gods of older Egypt.
Additionally, this area has some really neat mundane objects like bowls of charred fruits preserved by the volcanic ash, along with containers of dye pigments and different styles of amphorae for different staples of the Roman diet: wine, olive oil, and the ever-present garum, a fermented fish sauce. One day I’m sure I’ll get around to a whole entry on garum…
From the market, we enter the space meant to represent the Forum of Pompeii, but it also functions as a continuation of the public space of the town, touching on aspects of Roman life such as theater and gladiator bouts, as well as government. Among the gladiator equipment was this fresco of two young boys boxing or training as gladiators, which reminded me of a picture taken by legendary Pittsburgh photographer Charles “Teenie” Harris (1908-1998), shown below. Although largely unknown outside of the area, the bulk of Harris’ career was as a photographer for the now-defunct Pittsburgh Courier, one of the US’s oldest black-run and published newspapers, and the roughly 8,000 negatives of Harris’ work the CMOA bought from his estate are an intricate documentation of mid-20th century African American life in Pittsburgh. The photograph I was thinking of, of a small unknown boy in a boxing ring, has some of the same mixed emotion as the boys in the Pompeii fresco, particularly the one on the left.
Among the gladiator equipment, the exhibit also had an intricate horse bridle, likely for charioteering, made of bronze. As a full metal bridle would have been less comfortable for a horse and difficult to adjust, it’s also possible this would have been a ceremonial piece, much like the elaborately beaded tack made by various tribes within the Lakota Nation of the western United States. The tack in the Natural History Museum’s collection includes an ornately beaded saddle and drape as well, but below is a picture of the bridle for comparison purposes.
CW: Human remains and depictions of violence against POCs
At this point, visitors exit the Forum space and are placed in a darkened room with a short video about the 79 AD eruption of Vesuvius with a kind of 4D audio/visual experience, complete with loud volcanic noises and a fog machine that my friend’s kiddos were not pleased about when I went through the first time (but they were troopers—I probably would have been in tears at their age). When this is over, visitors walk into the final room, which contains seven of the Museo Archeologico’s body casts of the eruption’s victims. People caught in the city while the eruption was occurring were basically vaporized by the heat of the falling ash, but their bodies left impressions in the ground into which archeologists can pour plaster and create a cast of the person. Unlike an equally wonderful exhibition on mummies of the world that came through the Science Center a couple of years ago, there were no prohibitions on photography in this room, perhaps because the casts are more the absence of remains than remains themselves. However I was still somewhat hesitant to take pictures, and to post them here, particularly since all of these people (and in one case, a dog) died in such a traumatic way that I don’t want to cheapen that. But I realized that this conversation, the ethical treatment of human remains, is one of the bigger ones in the modern museum milieu, and as I discussed with the CMNH’s Naqada-period mummy, it is one my local museums are actively grappling with.
But the Naqada mummy is not the CMNH biggest concern in this area, so I’m going to use the presence of the Pompeii casts to talk for a moment about Lion Attacking a Dromedary.
LAAD is a taxidermy diorama created by the French taxidermist Édouard Verreaux for the Paris Exposition of 1867, where it was greatly celebrated and won a gold medal in its class. After Verreaux’s death the following year, the diorama was sold to the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, before it in turn sold it to the CMNH in 1898. Upon its arrival at the museum, it underwent some basic renovations and then was placed on display almost continuously from 1899 until 2016 in several locations throughout the museum, with perhaps the longest stints in the Hall of African Wildlife among the museum’s other more traditional taxidermy dioramas and in main foyer outside of the Hall of Architecture, its current location.
Ostensibly, the diorama depicts two (extinct) Barbary lions attacking an Arab “courier” and his camel. The extinct status of the lion species and the fame of the diorama no doubt were the driving forces behind the museum’s acquisition of the piece, and despite even its contemporary mid-19th century audience being somewhat shocked at its violent nature, the CMNH was generally very proud of its ownership well into the 21st century. As recently as 2009 they put a replica in a limited-edition seasonal snow globe and it wasn’t uncommon to see the silhouette of the diorama used in promotional material. There was always an urban legend in Pittsburgh that the human figure contained human remains, but the museum always strenuously denied it.
But around 2016, a few things came to a confluence. Information into the Verreaux family’s, and Édouard in particular’s, shady antiquities trafficking came more into the public eye. This focused on the many human skulls likely looted from indigenous tribes in Indonesia and Africa found in the long-forgotten inventory of the Verreaux’s taxidermy studio, but it raised the old rumors about the man in LAAD. It reached a point that during the diorama’s scheduled 2016 restoration, museum conservationists felt obligated to do an x-ray on the piece, as well as the planned DNA testing to prove the lions were in fact Barbary lions (Verreaux was known to fake that kind stuff, too). Imagine their horror when they found a real human skull in the model’s head. The diorama then entered a long and serious public debate about its continued exhibition in the museum that has led to periodic removals, being covered with a curtain with written contextualization, and its current iteration—its side glass panes frosted with a contextualizing explanation and more information on the front pane.
I’m not certain that its continued display is in everyone’s best interest, but I respect the museum’s curators for being willing to continue the conversation with the public, especially since as we’ve seen, this is a piece that touches on a lot of current social issues in the arts including exploitation of marginalized groups, orientalization in art, and community outreach. But to wrap up, I want to contextualize LAAD next to some works from a current CMOA exhibition about art and labor called Working Thought, that gives artists from a wide variety of backgrounds space to engage with these very issues. It might feel like we’ve ended up very far from the streets of Pompeii, but in reality, talking about marginalized groups touches on them as well. Because while certainly all strata of Pompeiian society were victimized by the eruption of Vesuvius (including our old friend, Pliny the Elder), archeologists are fairly confident that the people who likely died in greater numbers were poorer members of the community who had less means and opportunity to flee elsewhere. The social is always relevant in history as well as art.