Uncovering the gods
Stabiae was a city on the Bay of Naples in the Roman province of Campania. After being destroyed in 89 B.C. during the Social War, it was rebuilt as the summer headquarters of the Roman senatorial and equestrian (business) classes. For a hundred years, it flourished as a center of business, politics, art, cuisine and luxury before being buried in 79 A.D. in the same volcanic explosion that suffocated Pompeii and Herculaneum.
The inhabitants perished, but volcanic ash and pumice preserved the city’s many works of art. Stabiae’s magnificent villas remained buried until 1749, when the city was first excavated and reburied. Excavations were resumed in 1950; efforts have continued and expanded under the auspices of the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation.
The exhibit In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite at the Nevada Museum of Art brings 72 pieces of the finest art of the Roman Empire to Reno. The pieces date from the period 89 B.C. - 79 A.D and span four artistic periods.
Uncovered, along with the artwork, was the extravagant lifestyle of ancient Italy’s wealthy. Although prominent Romans and their families lived in the villas during the Senate’s summer holidays, the villas were not, first and foremost, private homes.
It is a testament to the importance of public life in Rome that the Villa San Marco, an estate of 11,000 square meters, has only a few, relatively small, private bedrooms. The rest of its space is given over to high-ceilinged rooms, heated baths and expansive gardens—once stocked with the most exotic plants from distant lands—for receiving guests and clients.
The villas of Stabiae were built to impress. One piece, a square foot of marble tile from the floor of the Villa San Marco, contains brilliant stones from North Africa, Egypt and Greece arranged in an intricate pattern. The villa’s planisphere, a ceiling fresco, combines gorgeously detailed paintings of the female divinities Spring and Fall, the goddess of wisdom and war, Minerva, and the god of commerce, Hermes.
Many of the exhibited frescoes portray various kinds of revelry but with nods to Roman austerity and mythical allusions. A first-century A.D. fresco of Silenus from the Villa Arianna shows the eldest satyr and teacher of Dionysus (a.k.a. Bacchus) reclining, plump, jovial and utterly besotted—but frowning nonetheless. It is a reminder of Silenus’ somber words to King Midas about human suffering: “What is best of all is utterly beyond your reach: not to be, to be nothing. But the second best for you is—to die soon.” The use of light and shade in this fresco creates a realistic yet rarefied effect. While the architecture of the villas is strong and imposing, the frescoes are quite detailed and delicate.
The most ostentatious room in a Roman villa was the triclinium, or three-couch dining room, where guests dined surrounded by lavish paintings. Three walls from the triclinium of the villa rustica of Carmiano create the most impressive display here. The walls are a still-brilliant carmine, the most expensive color of paint in Roman times, and they feature panels depicting scenes from mythology. The central panel shows a triumph of Dionysus, the god of wine and revelry. The most important guest would have dined, reclining, facing this middle panel.
The NMA’s exhibit may give lie to Silenus’ words; it seems Stabiae’s immortality was assured through its suffering under the volcano’s fury.