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← Pompeii: an archeological fantasy | Ken Lapatin | TEDxSantaMonica

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Showing Revision 16 created 09/17/2019 by Peter van de Ven.

  1. All right, so more audience participation,
    but I'm not going to make you stand up:
  2. How many of you have been to Pompeii?
  3. Raise your hands.
  4. So, maybe about a quarter of you, right?
  5. But you all know the story, don't you?
  6. 1,933 years ago tomorrow,
  7. (Laughter)
  8. yeah,
  9. August 24, AD 79,
  10. Mount Vesuvius on the Bay of Naples
    in central Italy suddenly erupted
  11. and buried not only the city of Pompeii
  12. but Herculaneum, Stabiae
    and the whole region
  13. under tons of ash, gas,
    mud and volcanic debris,
  14. totally obliterating them.
  15. Now, we know a lot about this disaster
  16. that's really become
    part of our own civilization.
  17. We know a lot about it
    because a young man named Pliny
  18. was on the northern edge
    of the Bay of Naples
  19. and witnessed the eruption,
  20. and he wrote an account of that event.
  21. And central to his story
    was the story of his uncle,
  22. conveniently also named Pliny,
  23. who was the admiral of the Roman fleet,
  24. and he was really interested
    in natural history, the elder Pliny,
  25. and he was setting out to observe,
    at closer range, the volcano,
  26. when he got messages
    that people needed rescuing.
  27. So what began as a scientific expedition
    ended up as a heroic rescue mission.
  28. And Pliny the Elder sailed south
    into the volcanic cloud
  29. and eventually died there.
  30. And that's what we see
    in this painting by Jacob More -
  31. now in the National Gallery of Scotland -
  32. we see Vesuvius erupting,
  33. the lava flowing down the hill,
  34. and in the foreground,
  35. the elder Pliny succumbing, falling,
  36. collapsing in the arms
    of two of his slaves
  37. while other refugees are moving off.
  38. So we have this eyewitness account
  39. that makes it really vivid
    exactly what happened there,
  40. and, of course,
  41. from the early 18th century,
    we have actual remains
  42. because well diggers discovered Pompeii
    and the other Vesuvian cities.
  43. And unlike other ancient sites,
    like Rome or Athens or Jerusalem,
  44. that have been overbuilt for years
    and years and years, centuries, millennia,
  45. Pompeii was buried,
    sealed by the volcano and all that ash,
  46. like - we seem to think,
    we hear over and over again -
  47. a time capsule, frozen.
  48. And we find there not only cooking pots
    and houses and buildings -
  49. things that we find in Rome
    and Athens and Jerusalem -
  50. but actual perishable materials:
  51. eggs, carbonized bread loaves,
    food stuffs, medical instruments -
  52. the daily life of antiquity.
  53. We can experience it directly
    when we go to Pompeii,
  54. have this unmediated experience
  55. of what life was like
    in the ancient world,
  56. and we have the whole city here,
  57. spread out before, now, the ruined,
    collapsed cone of the volcano
  58. that was so much larger.
  59. We have the city plan, we have paintings,
    we have houses, we have sculptures.
  60. Now, I'm trained
    as a classical archaeologist,
  61. which means I have to go
    to the Mediterranean to do my work
  62. and go to the Greek islands,
  63. and it's really tough and yeah, yeah -
  64. (Laughter)
  65. That's the way it is.
  66. And like all of my colleagues,
    I've studied Pompeii,
  67. but I never really worked on it
    until a few years ago
  68. when I was asked
    to collaborate with LACMA
  69. when they had their exhibition
  70. "Pompeii and the Roman Villa:
  71. Art and Culture
    [around] the Bay of Naples."
  72. Did any of you see that show?
  73. A few of you saw it.
  74. And my job, really,
    was to translate this exhibition -
  75. which opened at the
    National Gallery in Washington -
  76. to LACMA's space,
  77. and working with the designers there,
  78. especially Victoria Behner,
    who is wonderful,
  79. we made this show look
    really beautiful in LACMA's space.
  80. And it was all about art and culture,
  81. although most of this stuff
    wasn't about art.
  82. As an archaeologist,
    I deal with old and broken stuff.
  83. Some of it's very beautiful,
    but it wasn't created as art;
  84. it was created to decorate houses
    or to commemorate important people.
  85. But we did a nice job at LACMA,
    and I was very happy with it,
  86. although I have to admit,
  87. I wasn't responsible for its placement
    in the Art of the Americas building.
  88. (Laughter)
  89. That was LACMA's choice,
  90. and I don't know what they did
    to a whole generation of schoolchildren
  91. who now are going to think
    Pompeii's somewhere in South America.
  92. I don't know.
  93. (Laughter)
  94. I was very happy with the exhibition,
    but it was in many ways traditional
  95. because it perpetuated
  96. what I've come to think of
    as the myth of Pompeii,
  97. that we can go and recover the past,
  98. and the ruins and the finds
  99. give us insight directly
    into the lives of ancient people.
  100. And, of course, as an archaeologist,
    that's what I live by,
  101. that is to some degree true.
  102. But at the end of the LACMA show,
    like so many exhibitions,
  103. as a coda, as an add-on,
  104. there was a little section
    on the afterlife of Pompeii,
  105. and there were more
    of these volcano paintings.
  106. This is another one, by Valenciennes,
  107. from the museum in Toulouse, France,
  108. and it's similar to the one by Jacob More:
  109. the volcano is exploding,
    the sea is roiling,
  110. and Pliny the Elder
    is collapsing in the foreground
  111. as per the letter his nephew wrote
    to the historian Tacitus.
  112. And you've got more architecture
    collapsing in front.
  113. Now, what's important here
  114. is that when Jacob More
    painted in the 1780s
  115. and Valenciennes
    painted this 40 years later,
  116. they weren't eyewitnesses
    like Pliny the Younger
  117. to the ancient eruption,
  118. but Vesuvius was erupting again;
  119. it was continually erupting
    until about 1944,
  120. which was the last eruption.
  121. And what these painters did
    is they took contemporary eruptions,
  122. which they witnessed and painted -
  123. here's one by [Joseph Wright] -
  124. and they superimposed the ancient past.
  125. You'll notice it looks very much the same,
  126. except the sea is calm
    because it's a smaller eruption
  127. and there's a lot of lava.
  128. There was more lava in the modern
    eruptions than the ancient one
  129. because the ancient one was explosive,
  130. and that's why all that ash
    came down and buried everything.
  131. If there had been lava,
  132. it would have burnt everything
    and we wouldn't have anything left.
  133. But this is Volaire,
    which looks like Valenciennes.
  134. This is by Joseph Wright,
  135. and you see, it's painted
    about the same time as Jacob More -
  136. here's Jacob More's painting.
  137. He just added some guys in togas
    in the foreground
  138. and some ancient ruins in the background,
  139. and you get antiquity.
  140. (Laughter)
  141. And I came to realize that so much
    of what we think about Pompeii today,
  142. where we think we're having
    this direct connection to the past
  143. when we go and we can experience the past,
  144. it's not as much a window to the past
    as it's a mirror of the present:
  145. We're superimposing what we expect,
    what we know and what we see
  146. onto the past.
  147. Andy Warhol never saw Vesuvius erupt,
  148. but he did a whole series
    of Vesuvius in 1985,
  149. when the AIDS crisis
    was ravaging his community,
  150. to symbolize the catastrophe,
    the apocalypse, that was happening.
  151. And Pompeii has become
    a kind of ground zero for us,
  152. the type site for any disaster,
  153. whether it's the Lisbon
    earthquake of 1755,
  154. the San Francisco earthquake of 1906,
  155. whether it's Katrina or Haiti
    or the Fukushima earthquake,
  156. all those natural disasters,
  157. or man-made ones -
  158. the Civil War, Hiroshima, Nagasaki, 9-11 -
  159. Pompeii is always invoked,
  160. and it's invoked
  161. because it's become for us
    the foundational disaster of all time.
  162. And that it was,
  163. but again, the idea that we
    can really experience this
  164. is what I think of as the myth of Pompeii.
  165. And this has been promulgated most greatly
    after Valenciennes and after Jacob More
  166. by Edward Bulwer-Lytton,
  167. the guy who did "The Dark
    and Stormy Night" novel.
  168. He did another novel
    that was much more famous,
  169. "The Last Days of Pompeii."
  170. Published first in 1834,
  171. this was the bestseller
    of the 19th century.
  172. It was The Da Vinci Code,
    the Twilight series, Harry Potter
  173. all rolled into one, right?
  174. And it came to inspire
    theatrical plays, operas,
  175. pyrodrama re-creations
  176. as well as, eventually, films.
  177. It revolves around
    two interlocking love triangles,
  178. people really intersecting
    with each other in intrigue
  179. just before the eruption of Vesuvius,
  180. which, of course,
    is the climax of the novel
  181. when the poor, blind
    flower girl, Nydia, is able -
  182. as you see on the right hand slide -
  183. to lead her people out
  184. because she alone can see
    or find her way in the dark
  185. because she knows
    the city in its darkness.
  186. And it's this title,
    "The Last Days of Pompeii,"
  187. that we've taken as the title
    for an exhibition
  188. that will open in two weeks
    in the Getty Villa,
  189. but we've added the subtitle
  190. "Decadence, Apocalypse and Resurrection."
  191. (Laughter)
  192. Not just because these are great words
    that are very exciting,
  193. but they are -
  194. we didn't focus group this,
    but we thought hard -
  195. (Laughter)
  196. because we bring these ideas
    to the ancient city.
  197. Why was Pompeii destroyed?
  198. Not just because a volcano
    happened to erupt
  199. but because they were decadent
    and they deserved it.
  200. Was that because they didn't
    accept early Christianity?
  201. Pat Robertson would have you believe so:
  202. he said that about Haiti,
  203. he said that about
    Greenwich Village on 9-11.
  204. Whether it's religious decadence,
    sexual decadence, gluttony,
  205. the violence of the arena
    or something else,
  206. Pompeii was destroyed
    because it deserved to be destroyed.
  207. That's one of our ideas.
  208. Apocalypse - we can't think of the city
    without thinking of its destruction.
  209. The daily lives of its inhabitants
    that we reconstruct
  210. we think we experience
    when we go there or go to an exhibit -
  211. we know the ending: it's the eruption.
  212. Well, they didn't know the ending.
  213. And then resurrection has to do
    with the fantasy of archaeology,
  214. the fantasy that we can
    somehow recover the past.
  215. So quickly, I want to run through
    just a few objects in the exhibition
  216. and talk a little bit more
    about these three themes.
  217. Decadence - a painting like this,
  218. by John William Godward
    in the Getty's own collection.
  219. We see these women
    in very sheer garments -
  220. I mean, we really see these women -
  221. and they're in an archaeologically
    correct interior:
  222. luscious, colored marble veneers,
    mosaic floors in the corner,
  223. tiger skins, bear skins.
  224. They're playing with each other,
    or one's teasing the other,
  225. with little bone hairpins
    with carved figures on them.
  226. These are all things taken from Pompeii
    and the Naples Archaeological Museum.
  227. It's foundationally accurate;
  228. there's the support system
    that's totally credible,
  229. but the scene is a Victorian fantasy.
  230. (Laughter)
  231. It's the fantasy of a Victorian male
  232. who's imagining what a pair
    of courtesans is doing all day,
  233. waiting for their lovers
    to come in the evening.
  234. This is, again, the past being used
    to mirror the present,
  235. to see what's forbidden.
  236. And, of course, Godward
    couldn't paint this in contemporary terms;
  237. it wouldn't have been acceptable.
  238. But he can dress it up in classical garb
    and make it Pompeian,
  239. and it's okay for his audience.
  240. We're very pleased to get this painting,
    The Gladiator at the Banquet,
  241. from the Museo di Capodimonte in Naples,
  242. the masterpiece of Francesco Netti,
  243. which, again, I've researched this.
  244. Archaeologically, it's perfect.
  245. The building, the mosaics,
    the frescoes on the wall,
  246. the helmet of the gladiators -
  247. everything can be traced back
    to remains on site in Pompeii
  248. or in the Naples museum
    where most of the finds went.
  249. And Netti, we know, studied those finds,
  250. and yet the overall scene
    is a fantastic invention.
  251. Gladiators at a banquet?
  252. Now, if you watch gladiator movies
    on TV or something,
  253. you might just think this happened.
  254. But gladiators were highly trained
    and very expensive.
  255. They didn't perform at dinner parties.
  256. They performed in the arena,
  257. and they were rarely killed,
    because they were too expensive.
  258. So this scene of drunken,
    murderous, dissolute Romans
  259. falling over themselves,
    literally, into the dirt,
  260. or swooning, the women
    offering wine to the victorious gladiator
  261. as these emaciated slaves drag his victim
    out through the bloody sand.
  262. This is not only an indictment
    of Ancient Rome;
  263. we know that Netti was a social reformer.
  264. He wrote copiously
  265. about the terrible conditions
    of peasants in Southern Italy.
  266. This is an attack on contemporary
    aristocrats and landowners
  267. translated into the past.
  268. Again, Pompeii as mirror, not window.
  269. I've spoken a lot about apocalypse.
  270. We have lots of volcano
    paintings in the show.
  271. I just want to talk briefly
    about this one,
  272. which is one of my favorites.
  273. Sebastian Pether, a poor, British artist,
    never made it to Naples,
  274. copied other people's paintings,
  275. and that's why there's confusion
    about this architecture in the middle -
  276. Roman architecture with cupolas - un huh.
  277. (Laughter)
  278. The sea is calm,
  279. but what I really love are two things.
  280. There are figures in the painting
    in 19th century dress,
  281. collapsing the time between now and then.
  282. They're spectators
    to this ancient disaster.
  283. But what I really love is this frame,
  284. the gilt frame with chunks
    of lava set in and gilt.
  285. So we have here physical proof
    of the veracity of the scene, right?
  286. Chunks of Vesuvian lava.
  287. This really happened.
  288. And this is what all the literature said.
  289. But we went to the Boston Museum
    of Fine Arts to examine the painting,
  290. and we got it down,
    and we started looking at it,
  291. and one of my colleagues there
    is a woodworker.
  292. He said, "This isn't lava;
    it's shaved wood burl."
  293. So even the foundational testimony
    to the truth of the image is fake.
  294. (Laughter)
  295. And that's true of a lot
    of what we see at Pompeii.
  296. Many, many people,
    many specialists, my colleagues,
  297. don't know that Pompeii
    was very badly bombed
  298. by the Allies in the Second World War,
  299. collateral damage.
  300. There were no smart bombs,
  301. and Pompeii is located
    very near major supply routes,
  302. roads, bridges, railway lines,
  303. and after the invasions
    of Salerno in 1943,
  304. the Allies needed
    to cut off German resupply.
  305. Over 160 bomb strikes are recorded;
    I'm sure there are many, many others.
  306. And many of these buildings
    that were so badly bombed out
  307. were quickly restored
    in the late 1940s and '50s.
  308. So what we see at Pompeii
    isn't what Vesuvius left;
  309. it's part of an ongoing process.
  310. Our experience there isn't
    a direct connection to ancient Rome;
  311. it's one that's highly mediated.
  312. And that's true of the most famous
    and familiar "artifacts" from Pompeii,
  313. the bodies.
  314. The bodies aren't petrified,
  315. they're not calcified,
  316. they're not ossified -
  317. they're modern sculptures.
  318. They were created first in 1863,
  319. when archaeologists
    who had long found hollows in the ash -
  320. where people who had died from suffocation
    had been buried by the falling debris
  321. and then their bodies
    disintegrated, leaving hollows.
  322. Archaeologists realized they could
    pour plaster into these hollows
  323. and create forms
  324. that were modern casts of the lost voids
    of the disappeared victims.
  325. And that's what you see
    if you go to Pompeii
  326. in cases around the site.
  327. But if you go to exhibitions
    in Malibu or San Diego or New York
  328. or Denver or Cincinnati
    or anywhere else in the world,
  329. you don't see those plasters -
  330. I always have to catch myself
    that I don't call them original plasters,
  331. because they're not original,
    they're already one removed -
  332. you see second-generation resin casts,
  333. after those first-generation
    plaster casts,
  334. after the empty voids
    of the disappeared victims.
  335. So we're three or more times
    removed from those victims.
  336. That doesn't mean
    these aren't powerful images
  337. that affect us emotionally,
  338. and that doesn't mean
    that they've inspired artists since then,
  339. generations of artists.
  340. Just as More and Valenciennes
    and Piranesi and others
  341. were inspired in the 17th
    and 18th century,
  342. in the 19th and 20th
    and 21st centuries,
  343. artists have been inspired
    by Pompeii and the bodies
  344. and the calamity
    that befell the inhabitants.
  345. On the top, I show you
    a sculpture by Arturo Martini,
  346. an Italian sculptor of between the wars,
  347. who deliberately rejected
  348. the beautiful neoclassicism
    of Mussolini's fascist era
  349. to carve in this rough stone
    a figure he called "The Drinker,"
  350. modeled on the Pompeian bodies.
  351. And we'll have in the exhibition
    this figure on the bottom,
  352. by our contemporary, Anthony Gormley,
  353. who uses his own body
    to image, in this case,
  354. what he calls "The End
    of the Human Project."
  355. We also have a modern work,
    a contemporary work,
  356. that reflects the most famous
    of the casts, the dog of Pompeii.
  357. Allan McCollum,
  358. to emphasize our distance
    from the original loss and sorrow
  359. and yet how it's still with us, although
    in this very mitigated, mediated form,
  360. has created a work based on multiples,
  361. to remind us that we're
    not seeing the dog;
  362. the dog is gone, and we're seeing
    a reflection of it.
  363. Now, there's a lot more in the show,
    but I have to move on quickly.
  364. Resurrection - the fantasy of archaeology.
  365. This French painting
    by Sain, in the Orsay,
  366. which is coming to the Villa in two weeks,
  367. shows this happy scene
  368. of peasant women
    carrying dirt and revealing finds.
  369. That's not how it was.
  370. The earliest excavations we know
    were done by convicts
  371. in chains.
  372. In the 19th century,
    they were done by poor peasants,
  373. and notice in the front here,
  374. the guard with a switch
    to make sure the work kept going.
  375. I'm very pleased that from the Vatican
    we'll have this object.
  376. How many of you
    have seen the Sistine Chapel?
  377. I'd say most of you.
  378. Then you've all walked past this
    and not seen it.
  379. (Laughter)
  380. I did several times.
  381. It's in the room
    right after the Sistine Chapel,
  382. and you walk by in a daze,
    and you don't see it.
  383. This is a monumental, beautiful vetrine,
  384. almost a reliquary,
  385. with a Latin inscription
    in gilt lettering
  386. saying these are objects
    that were excavated at Pompeii
  387. in the presence of Pope Pius IX
  388. in 1849
  389. and given to him by the King of Naples.
  390. Archaeology has always been
  391. the sport of kings
    and the stuff of politics.
  392. But think for a minute.
  393. If you're running the excavations
    and the Pope is coming to visit
  394. and you're going to put on
    an excavation for him,
  395. are you going to leave it to chance
    what you might turn up?
  396. No way.
  397. The case is full of wonderful finds:
  398. bronzes, terracotta, glass, marbles.
  399. The marble relief on the bottom
    was thought to be Alexander the Great.
  400. Spectacular things.
  401. There's no doubt that
    these excavations were staged,
  402. and scholars today debate
    the degree to which they're salted -
  403. that the pieces were deliberately
    buried to be found
  404. rather than prepared.
  405. In fact, some people think
  406. that relief of the horseman
    comes from a different site altogether.
  407. So even what you excavate at Pompeii
    might not be Pompeian.
  408. We'll have screens
    for film clips, in the show,
  409. from the earliest silents
    through the great epics
  410. because the moving picture
    has mightily shaped our view
  411. and they follow this arc of decadence,
    apocalypse and resurrection
  412. up to the present day,
  413. where the Simpsons
  414. (Laughter)
  415. go to Pompeii, and they find themselves.
  416. Right? It's the mirror.
  417. And Doctor Who - I love this.
  418. The eruption of the volcano
    and the destruction of thousands
  419. isn't enough.
  420. They have to add space aliens.
  421. (Laughter)
  422. How does that reflect upon us?
  423. Now, a few months ago -
  424. and I've been working on this show
    with colleagues for years -
  425. in April, it was the anniversary
    of the sinking of the Titanic,
  426. and I was struck to see this photo
    of half a Titanic, full-scale,
  427. in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
  428. It's bizarre.
  429. But you'll remember
  430. there were all these celebrations
    and parties and reenactments
  431. of the sinking of the Titanic.
  432. And I started to think,
  433. How does it happen
    that a calamity on this scale
  434. becomes the subject
    of entertainment and celebration?
  435. It happened in Pompeii very early,
  436. not only with paintings
    but with operas and stage productions.
  437. In 1906, you could dance
    The Last Days of Pompeii twostep march
  438. for an evening's entertainment.
  439. Today, taking a little more risk,
  440. you can go to Reno or Las Vegas
    and play the Pompeii slot machine,
  441. and if you win, the volcano
    will erupt with gold coins.
  442. (Laughter)
  443. And if you have the occasion
    to travel to Williamsburg, Virginia,
  444. and visit Busch gardens,
  445. you can take the Escape
    from Pompeii water ride.
  446. It's fun, especially on a hot day;
  447. I did it once.
  448. But I submit to you,
    we can't really escape from Pompeii,
  449. because we've come to carry it
    around with us wherever we go.
  450. But it escapes us,
    the real, the historical Pompeii
  451. because the Pompeii we know
  452. is the one that we're continually
    reinventing and recrafting
  453. to suit our own preoccupations,
    needs and desires.
  454. And that's what
    this exhibition is all about.
  455. It opens in three weeks, September 12th,
  456. runs through early January.
  457. There's another show,
    more documentary, of photographs,
  458. at the Italian Cultural Institute
  459. in Westwood.
  460. Please come visit it at the Getty Villa.
  461. Thank you very much.
  462. (Applause)