Pompeii at LACMA


Friday night at the museum?  An easy decision for an archaeodork!  I’m taking AHIS 420: Studies in Ancient Art this semester, a class on the art and archaeology of ancient Greece and Rome (a lot of our upper-division courses are superimposed with vaguely descriptive titles), and as perks we got free tickets to the Pompeii exhibit at the L.A. County Museum of Arts.  For two glorious hours we wandered around marble deities, frescoes, mosaics, bronze fountain animals and even a life-sized reconstructed triclinium as our professor kept up a running commentary.  Our class prior had focused on the excavations at Herculaneum; with the aerial shots and fortresslike hillsides still fresh in our minds, it felt like we’d fallen through several layers of zoom to be gazing up at a fresco whose songbirds were bigger than our heads.  Sometime in the past, the inhabitants of a wealthy villa in Oplontis had assumed the same stance of contemplation by this wall painting as they socialized in the garden.  Behind them, perhaps, was a statue of Aphrodite much like the one that now loomed on our backs…thinking about statuary tends to inspire poetic waxings.

Dr. Pollini talked pretty much nonstop for the whole two hours, attracting a lot of hangers-on who had heard punctuating words like “Sex slave!” and “Penis!” through their audio headsets.  It was usually when he was explaining how body types got increasingly feminized (a little boy bearing a lamp, for example) or de-sexualized (as in the Eros statuettes with noticeably undersized genitals), which has cross-currents with our class theme on Christian destruction of Greco-Roman artworks.  Sometimes, though, the subject matter was inherently sexual – in one sculpture, a woman’s prominent breasts rising above her lover bely the fact that she is a hermaphrodite, which becomes evident only as the viewer circles to the other side.

A definite highlight was the triclinium, or dining room, with the three representative couches re-invented as blocks around the inner walls, and almost complete frescoes making the whole 10 x 10 room glow red.  Just outside was another one of my favorite pieces, a black obsidian vessel from when Egyptomania hit Rome after Rome annexed Egypt.  There is really too much to talk about here, so if you want to go the artifacts are on show until October 3–it’s not free like the rest of the museum, but you get in this case what you pay for.

~Tiffany Tsai


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