ANCIENT ART; Treasures of the Roman Empire's Stabiae Rise from Ashes in Cummer Exhibit

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Byline: JUDY WELLS

Life for the wealthy during the heyday of the Roman Empire was as risky as it was lavish.

"Art from the Ashes," the latest exhibit to open at the Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens, shows the trappings of a lifestyle in which a family's status could rise or fall at every dinner party.

The exhibit draws from the remains of Stabiae, who like its neighbors Pompeii and Herculaneum, died after nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted and buried it in pumice and ash.

Seventy-three artifacts tell the stories behind five villas both large and small during the first century.

"Society had a lot of upward and downward mobility," said Thomas Noble Howe, coordinator general of The Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation. The foundation is a public-private venture dedicated to making the ancient site sustainable and beautiful again.

Stabiae was where the elite of the Roman empire moved each summer between B.C. 99 and A.D. 79. It was not really a city, but rather a ridge-long expanse of immense villas over looking the Bay of Naples in Italy. Villas were 110,000 square feet or more in size - about half the size of the Prime Osborn Convention Center for comparison - with football field-length courtyards of fountains, sculptures, gardens and frescoed arcades. The core family would number six to eight members and they would own several such villas around the country.

"Wherever you were, you could be the grand host, controlling the environment," Howe said.

Staffs were huge and contractors would be commissioned to supply everything from furniture and customized art to chefs, tableware and produce such as the famous Campanian wine and Naples onions. Guests were constantly coming and going.

It was fantasy architecture, Howe said, "stage sets for power" with every element carefully calculated to convey the important, godlike lives of their owners, to influence and stroke the egos of guests and encourage the development of advantageous political and financial arrangements.

"Art was to talk about, to break the tension and lead into business discussions," he said.

BEHIND THE SCENES

When young Octavian learned at the age of 18 that he was to be Julius Caesar's heir, he went to Naples to broker agreements before going to Rome.

Dealing started in the morning during large, informal gatherings in a bay-facing arcade covered with frescoes.

After the hot, busy work of the morning, when many would have trouped off to the public baths, the most important guest would be invited inside for a refreshing bath and a relaxing nap.

"A private bath was the most important thing you could offer," Howe said.

The more important a person was, the farther into the villa he was invited.

In late afternoon, when a VIP was groomed literally and figuratively, came the finale, which was dinner. The dining room, called a triclinium, was a U-shaped room lined with three couches that opened onto an arcade and overlooked the bay. One, complete with frescoes from one of the smaller villas, is included in the exhibit.

Not surprisingly, Bacchus, the god of wine, and his bacchanals were popular themes for triclinium art.

Invitations would have indicated where each guest would be seated or, more accurately, would lounge. The most important guests would have the best views from the bottom of the "U." The hosts would be to their right, with lesser guests in declining status on the left.

Last and lowest came the parasite, required to be witty, tell stories and be the butt of jokes. In larger gatherings, the most important guests would arrive with their own uninvited retinues, or servants, who would gather behind them and be fed from time to time like pets. …

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