The San Antonio Museum of Art has received a $100,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities for an upcoming exhibition on art and artifacts from ancient Rome. The grant is part of the endowment’s $30 million campaign to support humanities-based projects nationwide.
Art, Nature and Myth in Ancient Rome, organized by Jessica Powers, SAMA’s curator of art of the ancient Mediterranean world, is scheduled to open in October 2021 and run through January 2022. The new grant follows an earlier $35,000 planning grant from the national endowment to develop the exhibition with the help of scholars and experts, who will contribute to an exhibition catalogue.
The exhibition will include many objects never before seen in the U.S., Powers said, including wall paintings, mosaics, sculptures, and exotic silver and glass drinking vessels, depicting images of the Roman landscape and offering a window into ancient civilization.
“We’ll be able to show to people in this community a type of art that they’ve never seen before in many cases,” Powers said.
She hopes the exhibition will “encourage people to look at these not just as beautiful works of art, which they are, but also to think about how they related to Roman society, why someone might have put this on the wall of their house 2,000 years ago, or on the wall of their tomb.”
Several wall paintings were excavated from the ruins of Pompeii, the city suddenly destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 A.D. Volcanic ash as deep as 20 feet preserved not only the bodies of hundreds who perished, but their homes and belongings, some of which will be on display at SAMA.
Other paintings were uncovered during construction in modern Rome, a not unusual occurrence in a city with a 2,000-year history, Powers said. Essentially, she said, “every time you dig, you’re digging into an archaeological site.”
In some cases the landscape imagery in Roman art is notable for what it does not depict. One of her goals for the show is for visitors to see that “these landscapes are really reflections of certain aspects of the Romans’ imaginations and their values. … They’re quite selective in what they show, and what they don’t show when they’re looking at the countryside.”
Extravagant seaside villas in Pompeii with colonaded porticos were made by slaves, Powers noted, “but you don’t see any depiction of the work that goes in to making that kind of luxurious building possible.”
Verdant olive groves and vineyards are also commonly depicted, but without the slave labor used to cultivate the crops, she said, which gives a glimpse into the values of elite Roman society.
Another means of insight into how things get made will be covered by exhibition programming, Powers said, including demonstrations on the making of wall paintings called frescoes, which are painted on wet plaster. After the plaster dries, the pigment is locked into its surface, creating a chemically stable and nearly impervious surface that can last over thousands of years, even through the devastation of Pompeii.
While the Vesuvius eruption and the current coronavirus pandemic do not compare directly, Powers agreed that the exhibition will serve to remind us that civilization persists even through disasters.
“Obviously this is a very challenging time for art museums. It’s a very challenging time for everybody,” she said. “So it’s a great help to us to have this support and the NEH’s vote of confidence in the project, but also their financial support is very important.”
The themes she began with several years ago in the initial stages of planning still hold, she said, and are relevant to the concerns of modern Texans.
“There are concerns of the Romans that are reflected in these works of art, concerns about who’s controlling the land, about how they navigate their relationship with the gods, and how they navigate their own social status and their relationships with each other,” she said. “And I think those are concerns that are still very much with us.”