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“Myth and Nature. From Greece to Pompeii”

National Archaeological Museum of Naples
Piazza Museo Nazionale, 19
March 16, 2016–September 30, 2016

Artist unknown, Tomb of the Diver, 480 BCE, fresco on travertine, 44 x 85".

Examples of ancient Greek painting are exceptionally difficult to come by. That “Myth and Nature. From Greece to Pompeii” opens with one of the more exemplary extant works alone makes it worth a visit. Tomb of the Diver dates from the early 5th century BCE and the fresco depicts a young man diving into the sea, symbolizing the transition from life to death. As in other works of Greek art from the period, the movement of nature is evoked through the barest of inferences: a wavy line for the sea, a few brushstrokes referencing the ground. It’s a testament to the idea that a lot can be said using very little. Primitive in its execution and all the more potent for being so, it is one of the most moving figurative representations of the meeting of the natural and supernal worlds in ancient Western art.

A great bulk of the show consists of Greek pottery dating from 500 to 300 BCE, including relics of the cult of Dionysus and, notably, a number of symposium scenes. The exhibition culminates in a series of unattributed frescoes from nearby Pompeii and Herculaneum, wherein natural landscapes become the setting for the transmission of Ovidian myth; the city might lie in ruins, but its walls continue to sing.

Travis Jeppesen