'See Naples and then die' were Goethe's famous words. If the German philosopher was as surrounded by beauty as I was during the new exhibition Dying in beauty - The world of Pompeii and Herculaneum, then I can understand his statement. For the Drents Museum, it is a peculiar choice: an exhibition on an already much-discussed period and society. Normally, the museum focuses on more unfamiliar countries and cultures. Still, I am glad they are taking a different path for this time, because Pompeii and the eruption of Vesuvius have always fascinated me. By Dying in beauty I feel even more urge to visit Pompeii and Naples. But then I prefer not to follow Goethe's advice.
Captivated by beauty
Some periods of history capture the imagination more than others. It is a personal preference. So is the concept of 'beauty'. However, according to curator Bastiaan Steffens, the thinkers of the Roman Empire were convinced of an 'objective beauty'; an absolute beauty that exists outside the everyday world. Beautiful works of art were the way to get as close to this as possible. Beauty was good for people.
If you look at the exhibition, you will understand the thinking behind it. It was the Roman Empire at its height. According to Steffens, the beauty ideal of the time was linked to the divine and thus practically unattainable. For both the (well-to-do) woman and man. As the curator looked out the window of his Groningen home, he thought of what it must have been like for the inhabitants of Pompeii and Herculaneum to live amid all that beauty. A different angle; usually Pompeii and the eruption of Vesuvius are linked to drama and suffering.
More than archaeology
Archaeology can also be art. The exhibition makes that abundantly clear. Archaeological exhibitions can sometimes seem a bit clinical, but the diversity and splendour of the objects make everything a feast for the eyes. For art lovers and those with an interest in artefacts alike. Besides a couple of beautiful marble theatre masks, there are several frescoes that are my favourite. Somewhat unfortunate is that a dramatic fresco about the theatre does not get the attention it deserves. It lies flat behind reflective glass. Apart from that, it is fascinating to see how well some objects have been preserved; like a (t)house altar petrified in coal and almost baked bread.
Modern plus antique is dynamism
You can walk through a lush Roman garden where you will be surrounded by mosaics, statues and frescoes; the theme Crafted beauty shows the world of the well-to-do Roman. Public splendour By contrast, it shows what the other inhabitants were surrounded by: art in bathhouses, theatres and temples. All equally impressive.
Good use was made of light in designing the exhibition. Several beautiful images are colourfully lit. It does not distract but adds dynamism. The Romans would be proud. A red aura hugs a cast of a body captured by the eruption; how dramatic do you want it?
The beautiful sculpture of the mythological scene in which a hunter (Actaeon) is turned into a deer by the goddess Diana and then torn apart by his own dogs is also rightly set in a violet glow. The combination of light and glass creates beautiful coloured reflections of works of art. This adds an extra dimension to the already breathtaking art.
The effect and idea of beauty
What this exhibition teaches about beauty is that our idea of beauty is based more than we realise on what we found of it in Pompeii and Herculaneum.