In Focus: Nero as Apollo, from the Triclinium of Moregine
By Gail S. Myhre
(detail: Nero as Apollo Citheroedus)
From the Triclinium of Moregine
Roman, Second Style (First Century A.D.)
Ministero per i Beni e le Attivita Culturali -
Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompeii
On August 24, 79 A.D., the wealthy Roman seaside cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were destroyed by an eruption of Mt. Vesuvius. The two cities were completely buried under 60 feet of ash and pumice -- and thereby lost. Pompeii then waited, almost perfectly preserved, for nearly 1,700 years until its rediscovery in 1748 by the Spanish military engineer Rocque Joaquin de Alcubierre.
Pompeii's destruction may have been tragic, but its amazing level of preservation has been fortuitous. It is in Pompeii that we find the largest surviving group of Roman wall paintings or frescoes. And it was in excavating and describing these that the German archaeologist Augustus Mau first grouped them by supposed period into the Four Styles.
The fresco shown here is a Second, or Architectural, Style piece uncovered accidentally in the town of Moregine, south of Pompeii. It is thought to be a depiction of Nero as Apollo, surrounded by Muses (not shown). As such, this particular fresco tells an interesting story about the political uses of art in ancient Rome, and about Nero himself.
Although in many ways Roman artistic sensibilities mirror our own, there is an important difference between us: Romans generally did not have any conception of the use of art for art's sake. Roman art was not viewed as an expression of the artist who created it; it was purpose-driven. This is true especially of portraiture. Marble portrait busts, painted in bright polychrome, served as a kind of billboard, primarily intended as publicity for the political or military official depicted. This attitude is also distinctly visible in the decorative arts. Domestic portrait art such as the fresco detailed here was a deliberate homage to the individual whose likeness was painted, and would in this case have been a direct and obvious expression of loyalty to the reigning emperor Nero.
The Romans preferred that their frescoes should be enlightening as well as visually entertaining, and painted themes which would engender conversation and contemplation in addition to admiration. Mythological stories were popular in this regard, and depictions of Apollo and the Muses can be seen not only in this fresco but also in statuary found in the Pompeiian excavations.
The identification here of Nero as Apollo Citheroedus is interesting in an historical and biographical context as well. Unlike previous emperors, who preferred to be identified as much as possible with the military, Nero exhibited strong artistic tastes, even to the point of staging musical competitions in which he publicly participated. Although the senatorial class as a whole disapproved strongly of this distinctly unsavory and "un-Roman" behavior in their Emperor (derided by Nero's own mother, Agrippina the Younger, as "Greek"), the general populace would have loved the spectacle of it. Besides, since the whole Roman citizenry was considered to be under the personal patronage of the Emperor, there would have been palpable social pressure not simply to tolerate his tastes but to celebrate them. Nero's depiction in this fresco as Apollo, patron of the arts, attended by the Muses which inspired these gifts in man, would be a pointed display of its owner's loyalty to his highest patron.
This fresco was exhibited during the museum special exhibition Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption at the National Archeological Museum of Naples, Italy in August, 2003. The exhibition traveled to the U.S. and was exhibited at The Field Museum, Chicago, thence to The Millennium Art Museum in Beijing, returning to the U.S. and its final venue at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston where it closed in June 2008. A 205 page catalog of the exhibition Pompeii: Stories from an Eruption (ISBN 978883702363) was published by Mondadori Electa S.p.A., Milan for the Field Museum in 2003 (new edition 2005) in collaboration with the Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali - Soprintendenza archeologica di Pompei.
From your Guide: Gail S. Myhre, Correspondent for Museums and Special Exhibitions, is a specialist in Roman art and history who also appreciates a wide variety of Modernist movements. You may read all of her Special Exhibition Reviews here.