Pompeii, Reimagined

A new Getty Villa exhibit looks at the art created by the famous volcanic eruption.

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Grant Walker Fund

When digs discover sites that were long ago covered by volcanic ash and debris, the focus is very much about cataloging and theorizing and making timelines and preserving what remains.

That's been true of Pompeii, of course, which is possibly the most famous city in history to meet its very sudden change of fate via a nearby volcano (Pompeii's cone has an equally famous name: Mount Vesuvius). But when the Naples-close village was rediscovered, buried, back in the early 1700s, archeology was only one plot point to its larger story. The idea of a powerful eruption and the tragedy of a town caught nearly unaware gripped artists and poets, who then went on to revisit, via brush and line, the 79 AD incident again and again over the last four centuries.

A new Getty Villa exhibit opening on Wednesday, Sept. 12 will examine the "modern fascination" that arose in the mind of artists following its 18th-century finding, and how it has influenced our own ideas of this quick, fiery, and highly emotional moment which happened nearly two millenia ago. Because, yes, our ideas of this historically significant event are shaped by the artifacts found, but paintings by the likes of Sebastian Pether and Andy Warhol and other artists who lived centuries after the last mote of ash had fallen.

Photographs, too, will be included in the exhibit.

It's an interesting idea, and it only seems to visit some historical happenings. Why do some true-life incidents grip our hearts and others only ever remain on the pages of our textbooks? Do the real events that the painters reimagine, time and again, share certain dramatic and emotional elements that the others do not? Questions, art and history lovers. Questions.

The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection will be on exhibit at the Getty Villa from Sept. 13 through Jan. 7.

Image: Eruption of Vesuvius with Destruction of a Roman City, 1824. Sebastian Pether (English, 1790–1844). Oil on canvas; frame with wood; attachments imitating lava. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Grant Walker Fund

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