The Roman city of Pompeii has been the subject of study, speculation and wonder ever since it was re-discovered in the 1700s. Today the site has undergone significant restoration and study and is among my top recommendations for must-see museum travel destinations. But if you can't travel to Southern Italy, there are many other museums where you can see treasures of Pompeii. Some destinations like the British Museum in London or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York may seem like obvious collections for Pompeiian art and artifacts, but Malibu, California, Bozeman, Montana and Northampton, Massachusetts have extraordinary opportunities to see art from this period as well.
First a little background on Pompeii:
On August 24th, 79 C.E., an eruption of Mount Vesuvius began that destroyed cities and suburbs along the Bay of Naples. Pompeii, an upper middle class city of about 20,000 people was the largest city to be destroyed by poison gas, raining ash and pumice stones. Many people were able to escape by Pompeii by boat, though others crashed back to shore by a tsunami. Approximately 2,000 people died. News of the disaster spread throughout the Roman empire. The emperor Titus dispatched a rescue effort though nothing could be done. Pompeii was removed from Roman maps.
Locals always knew the city was there, but it was not until the 1748 when the Bourbon Kings of Naples began excavating the site. Beneath a layer of dust and ash, the city had been mummified just as it was on what would otherwise have been an ordinary day. Bread was in the ovens, fruit was on the tables and skeletons were found wearing jewelry. An enormous part of what we know today about every day life in the Roman empire is a result of this extraordinary preservation.
During this time, jewelry, mosaics and sculpture from Pompeii were housed in what later became the Naples National Archaeological Museum. Originally a military barack, the building was used as a storeroom by the Bourbons for pieces that were excavated on-site but vulnerable to being stolen by looters.
Herculaneum, an even wealthier city along the Bay of Naples, was covered in dense pyroclastic material, essentially encasing the city. Though only 20% of the city has been excavated, the remains on view are extraordinary. Multi-floored dwellings, wood beams and furniture remained in place.
Smaller suburbs that were home to wealthy villas were also destroyed including Stabia, Oplonti, Boscoreale and Boscotrecase. Though all these sites can be visited today, they are not as easily accessed or well organized as Pompeii and Herculaneum. Many of their treasures are found outside of Italy.
In the 19th century, the so-called "Grand Tour" brought European elites Southern Italy to see the ruins of Pompeii and especially "The Secret Cabinet" of erotic art from the excavations. Excavations have continued for three centuries and there is still much work left to do making this. This series of archaeological sites and museums are among the most fascinating in the world.
Pompeii treasures in London and Malibu
Following years of neglect, poor drainage and nearly two million visitors per year, the ruins of Pompeii were declining and risked losing their status as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Italian government pumped money into Pompeii for a vigorous restoration of six of its most spectacular villas. Right now is an excellent time to visit Pompeii, in particular "The Villa of the Mysteries."
This strange and intoxicating series of frescoes in the room of a single dwelling are thought to be rights of initiation of a mystery cult. The Roman empire was tolerant of various religions (as long as taxes were paid) and cults often flourished in private houses. If you only see one thing at Pompeii, the Villa of the Mysteries should be at the very top of your list.
It's also possible to experience Herculaneum's Villa dei Papiri in Malibu, California at the Getty Villa. Here visitors experience the Villa as it was before it was destroyed. Though the physical structure is entirely modern, art and artifacts from the period fill the galleries and the property is planted with vegetation that creates a truly transportive experience.
Moreover, Malibu, California truly feels like the Bay of Naples. The light, weather and vegetation is nearly identical and Southern California's wealthiest residents own the coast just as Rome's elite did in the 1st century.
To visit Pompeii (Pompei) and Herculaneum (Ercolano), there is now a special train called "Campania Express" that runs between Napoli Centrale (the main train station in Naples, also called Napoli-Piazza Garibaldi) and Sorrento.
- Napoli Sorrento € 15,00/€ 8,00
- Napoli Ercolano € 7,00/€ 4,00
- Napoli Villa Misteri € 11,00/€ 6,00
- Sorrento Villa Misteri € 7,00/€ 4,0
- Sorrento Ercolano € 11,00/€ 6,00
- Ercolano Villa Misteri € 7,00/€ 4,00
Hours: 1st April - 31st October daily 08.30 - 19.30 (last entry 18.00). 1st November - 31st March daily 08.30 - 17.00 (last entry 15.30).
Admission: 1 Day/1 Site: Adults €11,00, Reduced €5,50; 3 Days/5 Sites: Adults €20,00, Reduced €10,00 (Herculaneum, Pompeii, Oplontis, Stabiae, Boscoreale)
To visit the British Museum:
Great Russell Street London WC1B 3DG
Hours: Daily from 10-5:30, Fridays until 8:30
To visit the Getty Villa:
Drive: 17985 Pacific Coast Highway,Pacific Palisades, CA 90272
Metro Bus 534 which stops at Coastline Drive and Pacific Coast Highway (PCH) directly across from the Getty Villa entrance
Hours: Wednesday–Monday 10:00 a.m.–5:00 p.m. Closed Tuesdays
Admission is free, but parking is $15 and it is required to reserve a ticket in advance.
Villa Oplonti in Montana and Massachusetts
Locals around Torre Annunziata were upset that treasures excavated at Villa Oplonti could be seen in a Montana museum before they had been exhibited locally. In response, the city has organized its own exhibition nearby the ruins at Palazzo Crisccuolo. But first, here's a little background on the site:
The modern day city of Torre Annunziata, today a suburb of Naples that is built over the Roman city of Oplontis, then a suburb of Pompeii.
"Villa A" is how scholars refer to Villa Oplontis which is open to the public. Locals call it Villa Poppea, named for the Emperor Nero's wife for whom the Villa may have been built.
Not open to the public is "Villa B" or Villa Lucius Crassius Tertius, which seems to have been a distribution center. When Mount Vesuvius erupted on August 24, 79 C.E., Villa Oplonti was undergoing a renovation and had no occupants. 54 skeletons of both nobles and slaves have been found next door at Villa B, crowded near a doorway, likely waiting to be rescued by boat.
It was an especially opulent villa designed for the purposes of pleasure. Though scholars don't all agree that Poppea Sabina, second wife of Nero lived here, the Villa was certainly a place that belonged to someone from the Roman senatorial class. It had over 100 rooms, zebra-patterned walls to indicate choreographed walking paths for servants and an infinity pool.
Excavated in fits and starts since the 1700s, significant work has been done by American and Italian archaeologists collaborating on "The Oplontis Project." Work is still underway and their findings are being published in a series of four e-books published by the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS). The first one is available here.
A touring exhibition for American museums was organized and has already been shown in Texas and Michigan. The show will spend the remainder of 2016 at the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman, Montana and much of 2017 at the Smith College Museum of Art in Northampton, Massachusetts.
To visit Villa Oplonti:
Via Sepolcri, 80058 Torre Annunziata NA, Italy +39 081 8575347
Take the Circumvesuviana from Napoli Centrale to Torre Annunziata
October 1st - October 31st daily 08.30 - 19.30 (last entry 18.00). November 1st - March 31st daily 08.30 - 17.00 (last entry 15.30).
1 Day/3 Sites: Adults €5,50, Reduced €2,75 (Boscoreale, Oplontis, Stabia); 3 Days/5 Sites: Adults €20,00, Reduced €10,00 (Boscoreale, Herculaneum, Oplontis, Pompeii, Stabia)
To visit Museum of the Rockies:
600 W Kagy Blvd, Bozeman, MT 59717
Summer Hours begin Memorial Day weekend and end the day after Labor Day. Summer Hours are daily 8am to 8pm.
Winter Hours begin the day after Labor Day and end the day before Memorial Day weekend. Winter Hours are Mon - Sat 9am to 5pm, Sun 12pm to 5pm
Admission: Adults $14.50, Kids (5-17) $9.50, MSU Students (with valid MSU ID) $10, Children (4 and under) Free, Senior Citizens (65 years old) $13.50
How to visit Smith College Museum of Art:
20 Elm St, Northampton, MA 01063
Hours: Tuesday through Saturday 10–4, Sunday 12–4, Second Fridays 10–8, Closed Mondays and major holidays
Admission: Adults $5, Senior Citizens $4, College students and children Free
Boscoreale villa in New York
Boscoreale means "royal forest" and was a hunting reserve dotted with aristocratic villas, the most famous one called "Villa of P. Fannius Synistor". Though rather lavish, it would have been considered in its time a rustic country house. The wall paintings were made between 40-30 B.C.E.
Like the Villa Oplonti, this villa at Boscoreale was a place to hide and enjoy extravagence that would have been looked down on by austere, conservative Romans. It was designed to be a place to eat, drink and host partys and evoke the culture of Hellenistic life. Greek ruins are found all over Campania and the villa is painted with portrais of Greek philosophers, writers, statues of satyrs and nymphs.
Excavated in the early 1900s, the frescoes are considered some of the most significant Roman frescoes in the world.
The Met has many famous frescoes from Pompeii, but the "cubiculum" or a bedroom from the Fannius Synistor villa at Boscoreale is among the most famous and beloved pieces in the museum. The frescoes went straight from excavation to New York in 1903.
How to visit Boscoreale:
Via Settetermini 15, loc. Villa Regina - Boscoreale
Take the Circumvesuviana train. (Line: Napoli-Poggiomarino.) Get off at Boscotrecase and then take the bus to Villa Regina.
How to visit The Met:
1000 Fifth Ave New York, NY 10028
Hours: Open 7 Days a Week
Sunday–Thursday: 10:00 a.m.–5:30 p.m.
Friday and Saturday: 10:00 a.m.–9:00 p.m.
Closed Thanksgiving Day, December 25, January 1, and the first Monday in May
Admission is a recommended donation. You must pay to enter the museum, but in any amount you wish.Adults $25, Seniors (65 and older) $17, Students $12, Members Free, Children under 12 (accompanied by an adult) Free