From the Archives — May 2016

BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

In a little less than a month, the Kelsey’s latest exhibition, Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: the Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii, will, sadly, come down for good. This was the Kelsey’s most grandiose exhibition to date, the culmination of several year’s work and planning. For this exhibit, the Museum borrowed just over 230 artifacts from the ancient villas at Oplontis, many of them out of Italy for the first time ever, only a few ever even exhibited previously. This endeavor was a major undertaking by the Kelsey, spearheaded by curator Elaine Gazda, with the assistance of many staff. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive and reassuring that our efforts were well worth it.

The exhibition showcases beautiful artwork from Roman times when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. These were covered in ash for nearly two millennia, awaiting discovery but perfectly preserving spectacular sculptures, frescoes, jewelry, and daily household objects. With this exhibition, Professor Gazda shows the contents from two villas, and what life was like at the time. Come mid-May, the exhibition will begin its journey to two different museums in the US, and with that these beautiful objects will be gone.

But friends of the Kelsey are well aware that once Oplontis leaves the Kelsey, we will still have beautiful artwork from Pompeii on display. The Barosso watercolors, the 1926 replicas of a room at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, are still visible in the Upjohn Exhibit Hall, in their own special room. These watercolors will be with us past the current exhibition, allowing visitors to gaze upon the level of craftsmanship not only of Maria Barosso, but of the original Roman artists as well. This space is a highlight of the collections, a must see for any visit to the Kelsey.

What some of our newer friends will not know is that the watercolors were not always on display in such a space. In fact, the artwork was rolled up and put away in storage for the majority of its life. In 1926, Maria Barosso painted these at the behest of Franics Kelsey. They were soon put on display in Italy under the auspices of Benito Mussolini, then rolled and shipped to Michigan, where they lay dormant for over 70 years. Throughout its history, before the construction of the Upjohn Exhibit Hall and its opening in 2009, the Kelsey simply did not have the space to properly display these paintings. They were too large to display in the spaces of Newberry, and the building did not have the proper climate control and lighting to safely exhibit them. Instead, they were kept in a locked cabinet in collections storage where they teased potential use in an unknown future.

This month’s “From the Archives” reminds some of our longtime friends, and brings to light for our newer friends, an endeavor to have these out for view. In 2000, Professor Gazda curated the exhibition The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse. This was the Kelsey’s first successful attempt at having the watercolors out and visible, not just locked where no one could see them. However, even then the Kelsey was not able to show all the panels as they should be viewed. The temporary exhibition space, where the current gift shop is now located, was simply not large enough for all the panels. In order to do this, the Kelsey had to partner with the Museum of Art. This exhibition was a multi-venue show, with part on view at the Kelsey, including some complementary artifacts and the full-size mirror group panel, and the complete room on view at the Museum of Art.

The Kelsey archives do not only contain the history of the archaeological excavations and forays into Europe by Kelsey and Swain and friends, but we also maintain the history of the Museum into modern times. Every exhibition we have put on is carefully recorded, making it possible for us to learn from our past, see what we have done, how it was done. It is humbling to see where the Kelsey was just 16 years ago, and the limits we had to face. Despite these limitations, however, the staff and curators were able to overcome and do the best we could with the resources we had. Back then, we had no idea a space such as Upjohn would be coming to us, we could only hope.

The files in the exhibition archives contain old posters, flyers, photos, even layout designs. These are a few of the examples we present this month. And it acts as a reminder that even though Oplontis will soon be going away, we still have the beautiful Barosso watercolors to enjoy for many years to come.

Analyzing Roman wall paintings

BY CAROLINE ROBERTS, Conservator, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology

When I think about color in antiquity, I like to imagine how colors have weathered, or changed chemically over time, and the ways these changes impact how we see ancient paint surfaces. Ancient paint can be found on terracotta figurines, marble sculpture, and — most visibly — on wall paintings. The Kelsey Museum preserves a number of Roman wall painting fragments, and curator and professor Elaine Gazda has incorporated these artifacts into her history of art classes. One of Professor Gazda’s students, U-M senior D’Arcy Cook, has taken on the challenge of identifying the pigments from a group of these wall painting fragments.

D’Arcy is a chemical engineering major who is interested in archaeological chemistry and conservation science. Her primary research question was whether pigments on the Kelsey wall painting fragments matched what she had learned to expect based on published literature. To answer this question, D’Arcy used analytical techniques available in the Kelsey Conservation Laboratory and across campus. I felt this would be a great opportunity to learn more about artifacts in the Kelsey collection and to provide D’Arcy with experience analyzing ancient materials.

Using a scalpel, I removed milligram-sized samples of paint from the fragments. D’Arcy analyzed the samples using Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR), an analytical technique that identifies materials by detecting signals produced by their molecular bonds. Among other results, her analysis confirmed that Egyptian blue is present on one of the fragments — a pigment I also detected with a modified camera, and which we both observed using a polarized light microscope. Egyptian blue pigment was commonly used by the Romans on wall paintings and sculpture.

This project illustrates how technical research works best by incorporating multiple, cross-checking analytical techniques, and depends on scientists, art historians, and conservators to happen. Many thanks D’Arcy, to Elaine and the Kelsey curators, and to the U-M Chemistry department and EMAL laboratory for their help with this research!

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Sampling photograph showing plaster and paint layers on a piece of wall plaster.

 

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Visible (VIS), infrared reflected (IRR), infrared reflected false color (IRR-FC), and visible-induced infrared luminescence (VIL) images. The white luminescence in the VIL image shows the presence of Egyptian blue.

Curator Favorites

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When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the third in a series of seven.

BY ELAINE GAZDA, Curator of Roman and Hellenistic Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan

Favorite Artifact. “The Room of the Mysteries”, A Watercolor Representation 1925-27 by Maria Barosso

Why. “As a historian of Roman art, I have long been interested in sculptures and paintings of the Roman era that have been labeled in museums and textbooks as Roman copies after lost Greek originals. The watercolors painted by Maria Barosso fascinate me as beautiful illustrations of how copies of works of art become works of art in their own right and take on lives of their own. Barosso’s paintings are aesthetically appealing evocations of the Roman paintings that still remain on the walls of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, but they are also powerful visual statements of the ways in which this 20th century artist’s own aesthetic sensibility transformed the “original” she copied. In her correspondence with Professor Kelsey, Barosso expressed her desire to capture the original beauty of the Roman paintings. This required her to look beyond the damage that the Roman paintings had suffered from the volcanic eruption of AD 79 and centuries of burial and creatively re-imagine them in an undamaged state. In the process, Barosso’s own style inflected the Roman imagery with an early 20th-century Italian “accent.” Such subtle stylistic inflections can also be detected in ancient Roman works that emulate earlier Greek models.”

Background. The Villa of the Mysteries was situated in fertile farmland outside the walls of Pompeii, a short distance northwest of the city. It was discovered and partially excavated in 1909 by the owner of the land whose workmen first uncovered a lavishly adorned room containing murals that rapidly became famous. Later excavations in 1929-1930 by the archaeological authorities of Pompeii showed that approximately half of the villa had been devoted to agricultural and other utilitarian activities. The other half had been the proprietor’s residence, with splendidly decorated rooms, some with large windows, and terraces that provided vistas out to the countryside, the mountains, and the Bay of Naples.

Before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 forever altered the landscape, some of the best views from the Villa of the Mysteries were to be enjoyed from a large reception and dining room known to archaeologists as Room 5. This room preserves monumental murals that relate to the Greek god Dionysos. The Romans knew this god of acriculture, wine, and the bacchanal as Bacchus or Liber. The roughly life-size, mostly female figures appear to enact rituals related to the mystery cult of this god, whose sacred rites were known only to initiates. The Villa of the Mysteries takes its modern name from the imagery in this room. The identity of the Roman owner of the villa is not known.

The murals in the Villa of the Mysteries have few counterparts in Roman art. Coincidentally, the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor near Boscoreale, from which the Kelsey Museum’s farming equipment, mill, and hardware come, had wall paintings of comparable scale and quality. Most of them are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The murals of the Villa of the Mysteries remain in their original context in Pompeii.

About the Watercolors. The paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries became famous with a few years of their discovery in 1909. Although the murals were made known to the world through published black and white photographs, color reproductions were not available at that time. In 1924, before the villa was fully uncovered, Professor Francis W. Kelsey commissioned a large-scale color replica for the University of Michigan so that scholars, students, and the public would be able to study and enjoy the murals in all their glory. He contracted with an Italian artist, Maria Barosso, who was the head archaeological artist for the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill excavations in Rome, to paint the replica.

Although Kelsey wanted a full-scale replica, Maiuri agreed to allow Barosso to paint only a five-sixths scale version. The end result, nonetheless, evokes the monumentality of the Roman paintings. Professor Kelsey intended also to reproduce the floor in an installation that he planned for a new gallery at the University of Michigan. Kelsey unfortunately died in May 1927, before the paintings arrived in Ann Arbor. In partial fulfillment of his plan to suggest the original effect of the ancient room, the Kelsey Museum created a reduced-scale version of the outer border of the Roman floor.

Find It. Climb the center stairs to the second floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing. Make a slight turn left, then right directly toward the end of the building. Then turn right again into the recreated room that showcases the murals, just as Professor Kelsey envisioned so long ago. Lights will come on as you enter.