If you are anywhere near South Italy in what is left of the summer, then don’t miss a stunning exhibition of Roman silverware at the National Archaeological Museum in Naples, which has just been extended to 2 October (and, after that, will move to Turin until February).
The National Museum is both infuriating and exhilarating. It is an absolute disgrace that they have not had their great collection of paintings from Pompeii and Herculaneum on display for some five years now. (Visitors are palmed off with a confusing and badly labelled show of just what came from the Pompeian temple of Isis – plus a few images that qualify for the erotic collection of the “Secret Cabinet”.)
But, as if to make up for this, they have been hosting a series of stupendous temporary exhibitions. “Argenti a Pompei” (“Silver at Pompeii”) is the best yet.
Here you will find some of the most famous treasure troves of the ancient cities. The beautiful silver collection from the House of the Menander at Pompeii is here in all its glory, plus a few pieces from the hoard from nearby Boscoreale, which ended up in the Louvre. In fact they have on show one of my particular favourites – a drinking cup decorated with skeletons apparently mouthing philosophical slogans inscribed in the silver next to them (a particularly vivid example of the “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow etc” culture, so characteristically Roman). Even more poignant are the smaller collections of precious objects found with people who were fleeing town with their valuables as the eruption came – or, more cynically, had seized the opportunity for a bit of looting.
But the star of the show is the silver treasure discovered only in 2000 at Moregine near Pompeii – and never on show to the public before. It amounts to only a few pieces, which were discovered still packed away in their wicker basket. But a pair of decorated cups are certain to make a very big splash in the world of ancient history – for they seem to commemorate what is sometimes known as the Treaty of Brundisium in 40 BC, just four years after the assassination of Caesar.
This was the deal stitched up between two of Caesar’s rival heirs, Octavian and Mark Antony: it gave Antony the eastern part of the Roman empire, Octavian the west; and it arranged for Antony to marry Octavian’s sister. For a short while it looked as if would avert all out civil war (it didn’t) and was celebrated in some of Virgil’s Eclogues.
Each of the cups shows a rather mysterious scene of Egyptian astrology or sacrifice. But on one this is accompanied by a portrait bust of Antony, on the other by a bust of Octavian.
I am usually very skeptical about identifications of this sort. But in this case the busts really do look like Octavian and Antony – and they really must refer to some such event of this period. (Who would want to have the Treaty of Brundisium immortalized on their fancy party-ware is, of course, quite another matter!). But whatever the truth, it is a marvellous find – and a reminder that there is still much more to be found in and around the buried cities of Vesuvius.
If you do make the exhibition, I should warn you that the English translations of all the labels and information panels are typically dreadful. All it needed was a native English speaker to give them the once over. Why spoil an otherwise brilliant show?