The news that the spring exhibition at the San Antonio Museum of Art [SAMA], Roman Landscapes: Visions of Nature and Myth from Rome and Pompeii, had already completely filled all the available student visitors’ slots from local schools got my attention. The demand to view ancient art is highly unusual among young students. No doubt art teachers in San Antonio knew that the exhibit, the first in the United States to explore landscape scenes as a style of ancient Roman art, would be a once in a lifetime experience. I saw a preview of the marvelous exhibit of more than 65 works that features an extraordinary selection of wall paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and cameo glass and silver vessels created principally in Roman Italy a century before the birth of Christ and extending to the years 250 AD.
Museum Director, Dr. Emily Ballew Neff, informed me that many of the works have never before been shown in the United States. Jessica Powers, SAMA’s Interim Chief Curator, is to be commended for her magnificent work in the curation and organization of the exhibit, an effort that took nearly ten years. The challenge for Powers was the extensive research involved in identifying important works and follow-up requests for loans from major museums in Italy, France, and Germany.
The exhibit sets a high bar of understanding that Dr. Neff sees as exploring “how humans depicted themselves in relationship to nature.” Moreover, the exhibit explores “why” the Roman gentry saw landscapes as “an indication of something sacred.” The paintings demonstrate how landscapes became adapted into funerary settings for the first time.
Powers explained that the “paintings reflect ancient Romans’ belief that closely linked the natural world with the gods and celebrate their increasing wealth and technical ingenuity, while also revealing concerns about expansion and its impact on sacred woods and picturesque coastlines.” As Romans expanded their empire many residents became wealthy. The wealthy elites preferred to live in the countryside and with the use of slaves built expansive villas. In viewing the paintings, I was struck by the incorporation of grand architectural works alongside gardens and villas.
At the preview of the show, Powers pointed to the “artists’ idyllic visions of a countryside dotted with seaside villas and rural shrines, where gods and mythological heroes mingle with travelers, herdsmen, and worshipers.” This incredible exhibition features wall paintings, sculptures, mosaics, and cameo vessels that depict a unique and imaginary vision of the Roman countryside complete with seaside villas, rural shrines, and mythological heroes.
Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the exhibition is the inclusion of art from Pompeii. On August 24, 79 AD Mount Vesuvius erupted, destroying ancient Roman cities of Pompeii and surrounding rural communities. The homes and their art, sculptures, and metal vessels which were buried under the volcanic ash were preserved remarkably intact.
In her presentation, Powers mentioned the “Garden Landscapes,” the first of the five thematic section portrayals that bring “together painting and sculptures from houses in Pompeii and nearby villas on the Bay of Naples.” The Romans treasured their views, in particular sea views. The exhibit includes a breathtaking wall painting with sculptures and birds in a garden excavated from Pompeii’s House of the Golden Bracelet, one of several large houses with spectacular sea views terraced over the city’s western wall. This painting, Powers noted, “presents a lush, seemingly naturalistic garden, enhanced with numerous elements” including a female tragic mask and numerous lively birds of different species. Some of the included works were painted in the era before Christ, [c. 80-15 BC]
As I walked through the ancient Roman art exhibit and examined the beautiful catalog, Roman Landscapes: Visions of Nature and Myth from Rome and Pompeii, I concluded that the landscape exhibit would strongly resonate with students from the Westside community of San Antonio where painted walls are commonly found. These Westside painted walls, referred to as Chicano murals, were influenced by Mexican muralists, in particular Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Sequiros.
In 1907 Rivera won a scholarship to study in Paris. In 1920, during his last year in France, he traveled to Italy to study the Italian fresco process, a technique influenced by the Roman and Renaissance artists. When Rivera returned to Mexico the following year, he was commissioned by the Minister of Education, Jose Vasconcellos, to paint large public murals. Rivera also painted numerous murals in the United States and his work influenced Chicano artists in California, Texas, and Chicago.
The essays in the Roman Landscapes: Visions of Nature and Myth from Rome and Pompeii catalog are superb. Bettina Bergmann writes about the broader issues of art noting, “These landscape paintings present viewers
with an inhabited, diverse and interconnected world that is open to exploration, if not by land or sea, then at least by the eye.” The Roman Empire lasted a thousand years and spanned three continents. Ancient Roman art is an immensely broad topic. Thus the focus on what Powers calls “an idealized rustic past and its emphasis on traditional Roman religion” makes the topic manageable, especially for young learners and others new to ancient Roman art.
Trinity Classics Professor Timothy M. O’Sullivan reminds us that the “inhabitants of the Roman Empire lived in a world infused with Greek myths.” The Roman plays featured Greek heroes, and Roman children “learned to read and write using stories from the Greek legends.” San Antonio students will learn by studying the paintings in the exhibit that the Romans borrowed much from the societies they conquered, especially from the talented Greek artisans. O’Sullivan points out that the Romans not only imported “symbols of Greek culture [statues, paintings, architecture] into their homes, but also replicated the conquered territory of Greece on their walls.”
As a former Junior High School World History teacher, I view the exhibition as a spectacular success. Students visiting the exhibit will likely learn that the word art originates from the Latin word –ars or artem–which means skill, craft, work of art. Perhaps students will explore other Latin terms such as Hispanic, the name the Romans gave to Spain when they conquered and occupied Spanish territory for nearly six centuries. I would expect that some students may wish to explore other examples of the influence of Latin on the Spanish language. The word Latino, for example, comes from the Romans.
The Roman Landscapes exhibition, Jessica Powers notes, encourages visitors to look closely at Roman rustic scenes and to see them as more than “just charming pictures.” The greater significance of these complex images is that they offer both a “visual feast to delight in” and opportunities to reflect on the timelessness of debates about urbanization, climate change, and access to natural resources.