Masterpieces from the ruins of Pompeii

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The wall paintings that first brought the civilisation of ancient Italy home to modern Europeans went on show in Rome yesterday, for the first time in decades.

The exhibition at the Roman National Museum shows the fruit of the work of the 18th-century enthusiasts today we would call them vandals who, on discovering the entombed cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, near Naples, set about prising them from the ground and carting them off. They have been brought to Rome from the National Archaeological Museum in Naples.

On show are 108 different scenes from the cities destroyed by Vesuvius and elsewhere, deliberately hung as paintings in the 18th-century style. Subjects range from the heroic Theseus standing in triumph over the slain Minotaur to still-life depictions of mushrooms, eels and fruit.

The exhibition is titled Rosso Pompeiano (Pompeian Red), in honour of the blazing vermilion preferred as a background colour in many of the works and which gave its name to this particular shade. In the 18th-century manner they are grouped by subject matter, showing scenes from the theatre, from myth, still life and portraits.

The fascination of both the sites swallowed by Vesuvius's lava in AD79 is that time screeched to a halt that night, and what emerged many centuries later when the towns were rediscovered was the art and craft, good, bad and indifferent, of the citizens, from smutty graffiti and the frank pornography used to adorn brothels to the earnest attempts in the decoration of homes to emulate the style and subject matter of the Hellenistic kings.

"When Pompeii first came to light, what struck people most of all was the richness of the wall decorations," said Stefano de Caro, director general for archaeological goods at the Rome museum. "Rooms and entire houses were painted with a quality that astonished people, leading 18th-century intellectuals to exaggerate, saying 'not even the divine Raphael was able to paint as well as this'."