by Roderick Conway Morris

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Perez Simon Collection, Mexico City
Greek Wine by Lawrence Alma-Tadema,1873

Fiat Lux!

By Roderick Conway Morris
NAPLES 23 November 2007


The Dutch-born artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema visited Pompeii in 1863 on his honeymoon. Until then a painter of rather obscure scenes - both in terms of subject matter and sometimes palette - inspired by northern Dark Age and medieval history, he was soon filling his canvases and panels with Mediterranean light, azure seas, dazzling marble surfaces, finely wrought bronze artifacts and colorfully costumed ancient Romans.

In the preface to his 1834 book 'The Last Days of Pompeii,' Edward Bulwer-Lytton noted that it was only natural that a writer encountering Pompeii 'should feel a keen desire to people once more those deserted streets, to repair their graceful ruins, to re-animate those bones which were yet spared to his survey, to traverse the gulf of eighteen centuries and to awake to a second existence the City of the Dead!'

Alma-Tadema followed in his footsteps, but with considerably more skill and panache in his own medium, and with more expert archaeological knowledge at his disposal, as is enjoyably demonstrated by 'Alma-Tadema and Nostalgia for the Antique' at the National Archeological Museum (which continues until March 31).

Alma-Tadema first visited Naples in the same year that Giuseppe Fiorelli was appointed director of the museum, which he reorganized on a more scientific basis. As superintendent of excavations at Pompeii, Herculaneum and the other Roman sites, Fiorelli had initiated systematic layer-by-layer digging practices and the recording of their progress with accurate measurements and diagrams. He also 'peopled once more those deserted streets' in his own fashion by developing a technique of filling with plaster the imprints left in the volcanic ash by the bodies of the disaster's victims (the flesh, bones and clothing having for the most part long rotted away) to produce casts of them frozen in their death throes. These became a sensation.

The Dutch painter was also of a scientific bent of mind and spent days examining, recording and measuring sites. When his pictures of antiquity (he also painted evocations of ancient Greece and Egypt) won success in Britain - his work met with scant interest in his home country - he moved there permanently in 1870, became a naturalized citizen in 1873, and was knighted in 1899.

Eventually, he built up a reference archive at his London studio-house of some 4,000 photographs and a similar number of historical and archaeological books and journals. It is evidence of the extent to which he became regarded as an authority on the ancient world that the Royal Institute of British Architects awarded him a gold medal in 1906 for the profoundly researched accuracy of his pictures.

One of the delights of this exhibition is that a whole series of excavated statues, friezes, paintings, chairs, tables, tripods, lamps, decorative bronze fittings and other furniture from the museum's collection have been placed among the paintings illustrating the extraordinary faithfulness with which Alma-Tadema depicted them.

Nor did he and other artists have to rely exclusively on on-the-spot drawings of originals and photographs of them. One of the consequences of removing finds from the sites to the safety of the museum was that a demand for copies of them arose (some of which were put in situ on the sites). The creation of these copies, which were done to a very high standard, was entrusted to two local studio foundries: Sommer and Chiurazzi (they later merged) were granted the exclusive rights to make casts directly from the objects themselves. In what must surely be the first example of museum merchandizing, these copies were also made available for general sale.

The firm's catalogues came to offer around 3,000 items from stock or on commission. Each one was identified with the museum's inventory number, a photograph and a description of the location in which it had been found. Thus it was private enterprise that provided the museum with the first comprehensive catalogue of its collection.

When Alma-Tadema arrived in Naples for the first time, he discovered a lively school of local painters inspired by Pompeii, over 30 of whom are represented in the show by more than 50 pictures and sculptures. There are only a dozen paintings by Alma-Tadema himself, with several others in the catalogue but not in the exhibition, for reasons not entirely clear. However, those that are present are well chosen to illustrate the overall theme.

A number of local painters did accomplished overviews of Pompeii against the suggestive backdrop of the dormant Vesuvius emitting a picturesque plume of smoke into a tranquil blue sky, and more detailed images of parts of the ruins. The Neapolitan-born Domenico Morelli (Alma-Tadema and he became lifelong friends) more or less single-handedly began the local school of Roman history painting with his 'Il Bagno Pompeiano' (The Pompeiian Bath) a couple of years before the Dutch artist's first visit. Morelli was very much stimulated in this by the French Orientalist paintings - in particular, harem and Turkish bath scenes, with their potential for eroticism as well as exoticism - that he had seen in Paris in the 1850s.

Morelli himself soon abandoned the genre, but it continued to attract some talented exponents, even if their names are not now well known. On the way back from Naples in 1864, Alma-Tadema met the great French Orientalist painter Jean-Léon Gérôme in Paris, and this encounter may well have helped him clarify his own future direction as a painter. (Gérôme is represented here by two small bronze studies of 'Gladiators' and a gilded bronze 'Dancing Girl.')

Unlike Gérôme, whose repertoire on canvas included scenes of the Roman circus, gladiators, and Christians crucified and about to be devoured by lions, Alma-Tadema avoided the more gruesome realities of Roman life. His subjects tend to the Roman equivalent of Victorian domesticity - of the drawing room, poetry readings, musical get-togethers, visits to galleries to shop for fine-art objects. Even his Bacchanalian scenes seem quite decorous.

In contrast, his Italian colleagues were more inclined to employ the genre as a pretext for explicit displays of nudity and violent deeds. Camillo Miola's 'The Death of Virginia,' for example, shows a murdered girl lying in an ancient Roman street in a pool of blood outside a butcher's shop, a story taken from antiquity but that could as well have occurred in contemporary Italy. Francesco Netti's 'Gladiatorial Combat During a Dinner at Pompeii' depicts a group of admiring women crowding round the victorious fighter like a bevy of mobsters' molls, as the lifeless body of his hapless opponent is dragged away leaving a trail of gore on the ground.

Ironically, however, it was Alma-Tadema who produced the most erotic of all these genre paintings, his 'Tepidarium' of 1881, a superbly executed reclining nude in which the young woman languidly and invitingly hides her pudenda with an ostrich fan and with her other hand holds up an unmistakably phallic 'strigil' (the instrument used to scrape oil from the body at the baths). This jewel, now in Liverpool, is on the cover of the catalogue, but regrettably not in the present exhibition.

First published: International Herald Tribune

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2024