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Status by the sea

In San Diego, peek back in time at frescoes from seaside Roman homes swallowed by Vesuvius.

April 11, 2006|David Pagel | Special to The Times

Suburban sprawl did not begin in Los Angeles. Showmanship did not originate in Las Vegas. And kitschy decor has been around a lot longer than the tacky McMansions that seem to be popping up on the best lots everywhere.

All three flourished on the Bay of Naples for a couple of centuries before Vesuvius erupted in AD 79, burying Pompeii and ruining the market for beachfront property for miles around.

At the San Diego Museum of Art, an eye-opening exhibition features frescoes excavated from five magnificent summer homes on the Mediterranean coast in the region of Stabiae, where the city of Castellammare di Stabia now stands, less than three miles from Vesuvius. "In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite" reveals that kitsch has its roots in antiquity, just like the democratic principles on which our nation is based.

That's not the story the show's organizers -- the Archaeological Superintendancy of Pompeii and the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation -- set out to tell. But they should. It's more compelling and accurate than the cliched tale they trot out: of preserving ancient treasures because they are great works of art.

Most of the approximately 70 objects displayed are not great art. But that doesn't mean they're not fascinating. Emphasizing kitsch also makes better sense in terms of the project the rare traveling exhibition promotes: the development of the archeological site into an archeological park, with such tourist amenities as cafes, promenades, summer theaters, a spa, a winery, a restaurant and a funicular.

The installation does a fine job of setting the stage for about two dozen frescoes, most of which are fragments. They are accompanied by a gorgeous decorative chalice, a basin-shaped fountain, a statue of a shepherd and a square of marble flooring, as well as by everyday gardening tools, oil-burning lamps, blown-glass bottles, ceramic dishes and bronze pots and pans.

The first gallery concisely sketches the historical and geographic context of the villas with aerial photographs, informative wall labels and a computer-generated video, presented on a large-screen TV. Visitors learn that the most powerful senators and businessmen left Rome each summer for the cool air of the coast. The area around Stabiae was their prime destination because its 150-foot bluffs caught lovely breezes and allowed for breathtaking views that included the dazzling blue bay, the volcano, the Sarno River plane and mountains in the background.

The elite escaped the heat, but they still had work to do. Regularly held elections kept them in touch with voters, who visited them daily in the atriums of their luxurious homes. In the evenings, selected citizens, distinguished visitors and fellow civic leaders were invited back for sumptuous feasts, hot and cold baths, workouts in the gym, musical entertainment, philosophy lectures and strolls in lavish gardens, some of which were built underground, out of the sun. Business and pleasure mixed freely, as did commerce and governance.

The show proper begins in the next gallery, where four fragmented frescoes from the 120,000-square-foot Villa San Marco hang. They present partial views of Hermes, Minerva, a landscape and a planisphere -- an abstract model of the cosmos, with women symbolizing spring and fall circling each other. An elegant marble chalice that once stood poolside stands on a pedestal next to a nearly 2-foot-square section of inlaid marble flooring, which hangs on the wall like an abstract painting.

A great leap of the imagination is required to get from these modest fragments to a complete picture of the villa. It is as if the exhibition presents a series of keyhole glimpses of a distant world of splendor. That's part of the fun, traveling in your imagination through time and space to a reality beyond belief.

An adjoining gallery displays 11 colorful frescoes from Villa Arianna, the 150,000-square-foot, seven-tiered next-door neighbor to Villa San Marco. Many images only hint at what it must have been like to stand beneath a ceiling where drunken satyrs and fun-loving gods frolicked, or beside walls where mythical figures from Greek tragedies acted out their timeless dramas.

Next come two marble sculptures from the 204,500-square-foot Villa del Pastore, which may have been a health spa, because no residential quarters have been unearthed there.

The largest gallery features 11 unpainted stucco reliefs from Villa Petraro, a more rustic, inland and year-round farm that appears to have been abandoned before its interior decorations were completed. The bodies of its boxers, gods, billy goats and winged creatures are elongated and awkwardly proportioned. Many are stiff, seemingly weightless and depicted with their limbs improbably bent. This emphasizes that they are handcrafted knockoffs of great works from ancient Greece.

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