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New Getty Villa exhibit: The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection

The Eruption of Vesuvius, 24 August A.D. 79.
The Eruption of Vesuvius, 24 August A.D. 79.
Pierre Henri de Valenciennes/Musée des Augustins/Photo: Daniel Martin Musée des Augustins, Toulouse, 78.1.1. Photo: Daniel Martin

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Is it possible to do an offbeat museum show on the world's most famous antiquities? That's what the Getty Villa is trying to do with its new Pompeii exhibit. The results are mixed, but fascinating.

It's been 1,933 years since Mount Vesuvius blew open in 79 AD, inundating the southerly exurbs of Naples with ash and lava, killing many thousands and preserving for the ages the art, buildings and remains of the people of the posh seaside town of Pompeii.

There have been hundreds of shows around the world in the past decade or two showing the dazzling, defeated remnants of this great, lost civilization. We had one here in LA just 13 years ago. Now the scholars at the Getty Villa have taken a leap of faith, and come up with a new idea: The Last Days of Pompeii: Decadence, Apocalypse, Resurrection.

The idea is to present the ways the world has thought of Pompeii over the three centuries since the great catastrophe was uncovered. But, apart from a few 18th and 20th Century pieces, the preeminent concentration is on the 19th Century--particularly on works inspired by Sir Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "Last Days of Pompeii." The internationally popular 1834 pot-boiler set up the Roman Decadence prototype for generations, from the novels and movies of "Ben Hur" and "Quo Vadis" to such 1950s fictive-filmic extravagances as "The Robe" and "Demetrius and the Gladiators."

Since Lytton, old Rome never seems not to have been decadent, and Pompeii, with its luscious, erotic art, luxurious homes, and Mediterranean languor seems to have embodied this lascivious, non-stop decline. The show demonstrates how the repressed creative minds of the Victorian era had a field day with this concept, resulting in borderline-concupiscent oversize tableaus, straight and gay, each of them first-rate fun in its way. Of course there are also the epochal representations of the multi-Hiroshima eruption itself ... more impressive, perhaps, but not as interesting.

The pre-Bulwer-Lytton paintings tend to be more modest, and one would imagine, easier to live with--pastorals of the 18th century explorations, with country girls carrying baskets on their heads, the half-excavated old forum surrounded by peaceful cattle and herders. There's also good stuff about the progress of the dig itself.

If there is a problem with the show, it's that the most conspicuous content--especially from the 1800's -- is simply not first rate. It's puzzling that the great epic painters of that time -- and those most fascinated with the classical era such as David and Gerome, for instance -- pretty much ignored Pompeii and its story. Lawrence Alma Tadema and Francesco Netti tried hard, but just aren't in that major league.

But here in LA, which lives under an indefinite sentence of destruction by a plus-eight-on the-Richter-scale quake, the show fascinates ... Especially when the show is in a venue -- the Getty Villa - that reproduces one of Pompeii's greatest homes.

The night of the show's opening, I looked back into the Villa's central courtyard in the dusk. Among its brightlit Pompeian pillars, we happy Angelini disported ourselves over good wine, food and music. As as blissed, one imagines, as any gathering of the original Pompeiians in the original villa might have been on a similar kindly summer night, 1,933 years ago, just before their friendly old mountain went nuclear.

(Marc also recommends a great modern novel about the disaster: Robert Harris' "Pompeii," which reads a lot easier than Bulwer-Lytton. What doesn't?)