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Unknown Artist Roman, Late first century BCE, Venus (Aphrodite), First century BCE.


John B. Stapleton

As someone who loves the Classics, I was very excited to hear that the Smith College Museum of Art was hosting the traveling exhibit, “Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii.” Before I got to the museum, I wasn’t expecting much more than a gallery filled with recovered artifacts from excavated sites, and intended to give an overview of the creative and aesthetic ideals of the era. What I actually walked into was a much more personal experience.

Oplontis, as the title attempts to make clear with its inclusion of Pompeii, was a site similarly affected by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Neither of the two sites that the exhibit focuses on were found until the 16th century, due to being completely covered by the eruption. These sites, referred to respectively as Villa A and Oplontis B, ended up being treasure troves of insight into life in this period of the Roman Empire.

The conversation around Roman life usually comes to Pompeii because of the size and amount of archaeological evidence that was preserved in the eruption, but it would be impossible to create an exhibit that could cover that whole area. That’s where this exhibit comes in. Focusing more on Villa A than Oplontis B, museum-goers are taken directly back to Oplontis to see the whole site as best they can in the gallery space, rather than just getting a history lesson on key cultural aspects. The gallery is filled with pottery, statues, jewelry and all of the artifacts you would expect from an exhibit of this kind, but each piece is accompanied by wall text that explains exactly where the piece was found in the Villa, it’s likely purpose in the house, and an explanation of its commonality to the Roman society. Beyond that, the exhibit has innumerable fragments from frescoes, many of them arranged in front of digital recreations to give a sense of what the walls of this Villa were actually like.

My first stop upon walking into the exhibit was the miniature model of Villa A. Above the model is a map of the Villa with every room numbered. I would suggest taking one of the laminated map handouts with you, because if not you’ll certainly find yourself running back and forth as you read along so that you can figure out which room the artifacts came from. Then again, even though I took a map, I couldn’t help but run back to the model constantly so I could try to better envision the room three dimensionally.

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