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The accidental rediscovery in the mid-18th century of the towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, on the southern shore of the Bay of Naples, and their excavation caused a cultural sensation throughout Europe at the time. Not only were the two formerly prosperous towns structurally reborn, but a great number of antiquities also were recovered.

The discoveries fed a neoclassical wave that was growing in art, architecture and literature. Artists flocked to Naples, which was, after Paris, the largest city on the continent, to reproduce the new treasures. Pompeian style—a burning, dusty orange-red, architectural fantasies, filigreed borders and floating maenads in geometrically refined frames—spread through the grand houses of Europe and eventually flourished again in Constantino Brumidi’s mid-19th-century murals for the U.S. Capitol.

Even today astonishing discoveries are still being made, as we learn from an opulent exhibition currently at the National Gallery of Art in Washington (through March 22) that will later travel to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (May 3–Oct. 4). The show also has cautionary overtones for another empire of indulgence facing a cataclysm, not of nature’s doing but its own.

Before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, Pompeii was among several prosperous towns around the Bay of Naples that traded in wine, olive oil, seafood and the agricultural products that thrived in the region’s volcanic soil. Farther up the coast were the luxurious villas built by Julius Caesar, the Emperor Augustus and other Romans who made the coast of Campania their resort of choice from the first century B.C. through the first century A.D. Bust sculptures in the exhibition’s first galleries represent such patrons: a lean and vigorous Julius Caesar, an idealized, blandly handsome Augustus, his wife, Livia, with a startlingly modern look. An endearing portrait of a boy, who could have been a relative of one of Desiderio da Settignano’s subjects in 15th-century Florence, contrasts with the unfortunate Emperor Gaius, called Caligula (“Little Boots”) by the army troops among whom he grew up, and the dull, flat-faced Nero, who like Gaius vacationed at the resort town of Baiae and was equally short-lived.

As frescoes from the period show, the maritime villas had long, colonnaded walkways opening to the sea. In Pompeii and Herculaneum blank walls faced the busy streets. Villas and townhouses were entered through an atrium, a large hall open to the sky for light; rainwater was caught by a central basin in the floor. Visitors next came to the tablinum, a sort of office and reception room for the master of the house. Frescoes of various sizes decorated the walls, depicting aspects of business conducted in the tablinum, local seafood and wildlife, women in the guise of Aphrodite, even a female painter portraying the fertility god Priapus. Actors with masks and other theater scenes were also popular. (The larger of the two theaters in Pompeii accommodated 5,000 spectators, the theater at Herculaneum 2,500.)

While the seaside villas boasted interior gardens with colonnaded courtyards opening to the bay, the gardens at Pompeii were typically at the back of the houses.

After Octavian (later, Emperor Augustus) built an aqueduct to assure a supply of running water, garden fountains became more popular than ever, often surrounded by statues of Dionysius, the god of nature and wine, with his reveling band of satyrs and maenads. The garden décor was eclectic: sculpture portraits of Greek thinkers and writers mingled with images of Olympic athletes, a fierce satyr struggling to subdue a hermaphrodite or any number of wild animals. Frescoes with birds, flowers and fountains expanded actual gardens, adding an idyllic calm, as in an enchanting scene from the so-called House of the Golden Bracelet in Pompeii, in which seven species of birds, trees and flowers are identifiable. (The house was first excavated between 1978 and 1983.) The gardens were meant to be places of learning and reflection, similar to libraries, of which the only surviving example from antiquity is at the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, after which the J. Paul Getty Villa in Pacific Palisades, in southern California, was modeled.

One of the show’s high points, found by chance in 1959 and further excavated in 1999 and 2000, is a dining room with its original frescoes from the town of Moregine, south of Pompeii. (Since several other dining rooms were found in the building at Moregine, it may have been a large inn or business headquarters.) Called a triclinium, since guests reclined on three couches while dining, such rooms were generally at the back of a house, often overlooking the garden. Here the three well-preserved sides of the room are frescoed with images of Apollo, god of learning and the arts, surrounded by the muses, against a background of Pompeian red—a décor meant to promote intellectual exchange, the ideal of any Roman banquet.

Plato’s Symposium was the archetype for such gatherings. The legacy of Greece runs through the exhibition as its major key. By the eighth century B.C., the Greeks had colonized the area; they founded Neapolis (modern Naples) some two centuries later. Though most of Greece fell to Rome in 146 B.C., it still provided a golden age for Roman reverence and emulation. “Captive Greece,” wrote Horace, “took captive her savage conqueror and brought civilization to the rustic Latins.” This sentiment appears clearly in the small Pompeian mosaic of “Plato’s Academy,” with the master of dialogue surrounded by his students and the Acropolis in the background.

Perhaps the finest sculpture in the show, on loan from the British Museum, portrays the furrowed brow and searching expression of the blind Homer. “Our sense of longing,” wrote Pliny the Elder, who later perished at the eruption of Vesuvius, “gives birth to faces that have not been recorded, as happens to be the case with Homer.” The Romans also loved the comedies of Menander; a marble bust from the Museum of Fine Art in Boston imagines the fourth-century B.C. playwright with a noble, aquiline nose above full, sensuous lips.

“There have been many disasters in this world,” wrote Goethe in his Italian Journey, on touring the ruins of Pompeii during his travels (1786-88), “but few have given so much delight to posterity.” (He may also have coined the famous adage, “See Naples and die.”) The fascination with the great event was all but feverish, as evident in Joseph Wright’s painting in the exhibition, “Vesuvius from Por-tici” (c. 1774-76). Even today, copies of antiquities from the National Archeologi-cal Museum of Naples are assiduously produced, and tourists return from Cam-pania with jewelry made of lava.

This lavish exhibition offers the reconstruction of a whole culture, one that existed before the disaster and made a lasting mark on Western art, literature and architecture. A stunning coup de théatre in the last gallery proves the point, with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s painting “A Sculpture Gallery” (1874). It portrays the painter and his family as ancient Romans being shown works of art for purchase, while six of the very works depicted are on view in the gallery. It may not be a great painting, and it may be jarring to viewers in a time of economic distress and belt-tightening, but it presents a culture that all but worshiped order, harmony and proportion—with a Dionysian flair—to a degree we today can scarcely imagine.

View a slide show of images from the Pompeii exhibit.

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