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Skyrockets in Flight, Afternoon Delight… Roman Style

August 11, 2009

by Nico Brancolini
Skyrockets in Flight, Afternoon Delight… Roman Style

So you arrive back in Los Angeles -- okay, let’s be honest: the Inland Empire -- and you realize you have a lot of time to kill before classes start and you have work to do. You could download the latest episode of True Blood, but that can really only last an hour. Then what? If you can find a friend with a car and valid driver’s license – someone, unlike me, who cannot lay claim to the words, “Five days, three speeding tickets” -- you would be foolish not to visit the exhibit “Pompeii and the Roman Villa” at Los Angeles County Museum of Art, commonly known as LACMA. Quick Side Note: Most people pronounce the museum “LACK-MA,” but I like to pronounce it “LAWK-MA.” This may seem trivial, but I think LACK-MA sounds stupid -- like the museum is lacking something. LAWK-MA, on the other hand, sounds much more tasteful. It conjures images of the opera Lakmé by Léo Delibes, which is quite classy. “Not good enough,” you say? Well the score of said opera is featured prominently in both British Airways and Ghirardelli chocolates commercials, which ups the class quotient into positively posh territory. At least this is what we think of as “posh” in humble Indi-“REAL AMERICA”-ana, but enough ellipses and digressions; back to the actual exhibit.

Pompeii, as you may know, was a resort city in Ancient Rome that was destroyed in 79 CE when Mount Vesuvius erupted, burying the city in volcanic ash. All this can be learned from the exciting water ride “Escape from Pompeii” at Busch Gardens theme park in scenic Williamsburg, Virginia. Book your flights today at But what Lakmé-MA can teach you that you will not learn at an alcohol-funded amusement park is that Pompeii was quite the chic place in its day. Trés chi-chi, in fact. The Amalfi coast was to the Romans what the French Riviera was to Dick and Nicole Diver, or what the Hamptons are to Blair Waldorf (don’t pretend you don’t know all about Blair Waldorf because I know you do). Basically the Romans built opulent villas, filled them with priceless art, and had wild orgies. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Part of the exhibit examines the cult of Bacchus and his retinue filled with maenads, satyrs, sielni, and panthers. These merry beings got drunk and pranced through the woods, just like Republicans do at the Bohemian Grove in the Northern California redwoods. (That’s not just me taking a cheap shot, by the way. See “Bohemian Tragedy” by Alex Shoumatoff in the May 2009 issue of Vanity Fair). To honor this delightful revelry, Roman families filled their homes, villas and gardens in Pompeii and the surrounding Bay of Naples with art and decorations that emphasized these less inhibited creatures.

Highlights of the LACMA exhibit include busts of some of Rome’s most “colorful” – read polite euphemism for “f**king insane” -- emperors including Caligula and Nero; a gladiator helmet decorated with images of the Fall of Troy; garden statues with comical hermaphroditic twists; and miniature home temples and god figurines. The final rooms showcase art from the Romantic era, which, thanks largely to Edward Buwler-Lytton’s 1834 novel The Last Days of Pompeii, produced many Pompeii-themed pieces in multiple artistic mediums. The tour ends, like all museum tours, in the gift shop, where I was suckered into buying “Roman Numeral Birthday Candles” with all the Xs, Vs, Ls, and Is you would ever need for a 21st birthday party.

Certainly the subject matter is interesting, but it should also be noted that this is a phenomenally well-done exhibit. It is organized, clever, and the audio tour is really very interesting. The Muses are even on hand – well, five of the nine anyway -- to sing gospel songs about the Greco-Roman artwork on display. Oh wait, I mixed up the exhibit with Disney’s Hercules. Alas, if only there had been musical numbers. But this exhibit was certainly the next best thing, and this is actually a crucial point to make. The previous exhibit in this same hall at LACMA was on William Randolph Hearst, and while it featured all the prerequisite medieval tapestries and Medici crests you would expect to find at Charles Foster Kane’s Xanadu, the exhibit fell sort of flat; it was like walking around a warehouse. That exhibit was not well conceived or executed, which is a levy no mortal would dare to make against “Pompeii and the Roman Villa.”

The exhibit runs until October 4 of this year. Tickets are $25, including the audio tour, and you can save five dollars by going at “twilight,” which just means after 5 p.m.

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