Pompeii and the Roman Villa
National Gallery, Washington, D.C.
Through March 22

Certain images come to mind when most people think of the destruction of Pompeii in A.D. 79, said Paul Richard in The Washington Post. Mostly, they’re of the violent eruption of Mount Vesuvius—“the
rivers of red lava, the hot snows of gray ash”—that buried the Roman town nearly instantaneously. But the National Gallery’s exhibition of objects excavated from Pompeii gives us a new set of images to contemplate. What we see here is a wealthy seaside town in full flower, filled with “portrait busts of goddesses, atria, and niches” decorated with sculpture from all over the empire. “Believe it or not,” Washington, D.C., has never before hosted such an important exhibition of ancient Roman artifacts.

The curators have gone to great length to re-create the feel of Pompeian society, said Deborah K. Dietsch in The Washington Times. Unfortunately, the show often seems little more than a first-century “home and garden show.” Most museumgoers will have seen objects like these many times before. So the curators have padded out the show with informational displays and photomurals from the city’s excavation. At one point, they even exhibit some 18th-century paintings imagining the city’s destruction, presumably to “jazz up the antiquities with fiery scenes of the erupting volcano.” They needn’t have tried so hard: Within this sprawling exhibition there are dozens of fascinating objects waiting to be discovered. My favorite was a sleek, black bust of Livia, wife of the Emperor Augustus, which “looks as though it was sculpted in the 20th century.”