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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

Like all of the frescoes in the exhibition, they were meant to be props for highly scripted social dramas that unfolded before them, amid wine, food and music. In this sense, they have as much in common with the ersatz murals painted on the ceilings of Vegas casinos as they do with the Greek originals they mimic.

The highlight is the last gallery, where the floor-to-ceiling, wall-to-wall frescoes from the triclinium (dining room) of Villa Carmiano have been installed. Unlike the other works, which require ample imaginative engagement, this one leaves little to the imagination.

It's an over-the-top extravaganza. Every square inch of wall space is decked out in a variety of styles that form an elaborate pattern festooned with illusionistic architectural details. Harmony and restraint give way to giddy, everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink indulgence.

Big fields of rich reds, each adorned with a single winged figure, alternate with window-like rectangles depicting scenes from Greek myths, including Dionysus riding a chariot pulled by bulls; Neptune and Amymone astride a galloping horse; and Bacchus and Ceres atop a hippogriff. Images of monumental arches wrap around the room's corners. And a ochre-tinted section runs around the walls' lower third, where naturalistic images of flora and fauna alternate with burgundy panels bedecked with stylized renditions of imaginary beasts that seem to be descended from horses and sea serpents.

It's a wonderfully tacky parade of stories and styles. And it's the tip of the iceberg. Compared with the magnificent coastal villas, this rustic vineyard was modest, with a floorplan of only 3,600 square feet.

Multiply its dimensions by 50. Add marble floors, exotic gardens, shaded colonnades, splashing fountains, swimming pools, steam rooms, oil-burning chandeliers, libraries, music halls and dining rooms, and you'll begin to get a picture of a single coastal villa, where no expense was spared and good taste almost always gave way to a type of vulgarity often thought of as American. It's good to see our roots in antiquity.


`In Stabiano'

Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite

Where: San Diego Museum of Art, Balboa Park, 1450 El Prado, San Diego

When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays and until 9 p.m. Thursdays; closed Mondays.

Ends: May 14

Price: $4 to $10

Contact: (619) 232-7931;

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