Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Naples Archeological Museum: A Virtual Visit

For anyone with an interest in Pompeii and Herculaneum, a visit to Naples is a must. Inside the Naples Archeological Museum is the world's largest collection of artifacts unearthed from the ancient cities lost tragically in the 79 AD eruption of Mount Vesuvius. But for those who can't fly to Italy this week, here we revisit a Rick Steves video detailing some of the highlights in the museum.

Steves comments in the beginning of the video that "the local king" demanded that the best treasures be excavated from Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. This is a partial truth. The rest of the story is that King Charles was acting on the authority of his mother.

Queen Elisabetta was descended from the Medici dukes of Florence and the Farnese dukes of Lombardy. It was Elisabetta who initiated and funded the first excavations of these cities in the 1700s, and the priceless Farnese collection available to Archeological Museum visitors today (mentioned at around 3:45 in the video) was her own.

Mount Vesuvius before the eruption
At 0.49, we see one of the most famous frescoes from Pompeii. The beauty of this piece is that it shows Mount Vesuvius as the Romans saw the volcano, covered in foliage and apparently dormant. Prior to the eruption that buried the Roman cities, Mount Vesuvius had not erupted since about 1800 BC. The Roman citizens of Pompeii and Herculaneum were totally ill prepared when it happened.

Since that eruption, Mount Vesuvius has erupted several more times. In 2010, it was predicted that another major eruption will occur within the next eight years. We are getting very close to that day.

Why, then, do so many priceless artifacts still remain beneath the ash? At 0.54 of the video, we see several bronze statues from the villa of Julius Caesar's father-in-law. What Rick Steves neglects to mention here is that this was the famed "Villa dei Papiri," the most extensive ancient Roman library still extant today. The fact that the majority of this library is still buried beneath a volcano that could erupt again at any time is a tragedy waiting to happen. The history of the excavation of this villa, and the reasons why it has not been fully excavated, are discussed here.

Despite the fact that efforts to excavate the Villa dei Papiri have been repeatedly halted throughout the centuries, the many voyages into the villa have offered a very complete description of it. Visitors to the Getty Villa in Malibu, California, have the luxury of seeing this grandiose palace as it was in the time of the Romans. The Getty Villa is a museum dedicated to artifacts from Pompeii and Herculaneum, and the museum itself is a full-scale reconstruction of the three-story Villa dei Papiri. One can meander through the vast gardens of the Getty Villa and find a reproduction of the Drunken Faun statue mentioned at 1:18 of the Rick Steves video.

Alexander the Great mosaic from Pompeii

At 2:04, we see one of the most priceless mosaics from Pompeii: the mosaic that depicts the victory of Alexander the Great over Persia. Of course, it was Alexander who founded the Egyptian city known today as Alexandria, and it was his legacy that followed through 250 years of Ptolemaic pharaohs to the last ruler of the dynasty, Queen Cleopatra.

This mosaic was found in the House of the Faun, an extraordinarily large Pompeii villa that could only have been owned by the highest of elite. Exactly who owned the House of the Faun has never been established, but the Alexander the Great mosaic was not the only Egyptian influence found there. Other notable artwork excavated from the villa included several scenes of the Nile river.

No discussion of the Naples Archeological Museum would be complete without mention of the Secret Room, which requires an additional fee to enter. Rick Steves brings the viewer into this room for free at 2:45 in the video. The Secret Room contains much of the erotic art from Pompeii, of which there was plenty.

Reconstruction of the Alexander the Great mosaic
One section of the museum not mentioned in the video is the Egyptian section. Along with a respectable collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, this section contains human and animal mummies and a bit of information about the mummification beliefs of the pharaohs. Contained within the mummified crocodile is a delicious secret. Stay tuned.

To visit the Naples Archeological Museum, visit the museum's Official Site.

This blog post explores a non-fictional theme or locale that is incorporated in The Vesuvius Isotope, the first Katrina Stone novel. Buy The Vesuvius Isotope in print or ebook.

From the ancient ruins beneath Mount Vesuvius, a two-thousand-year-old document has emerged. It is the only text ever attributed to the ambitious, inquisitive, and cryptic last pharaoh of Egypt...

When her Nobel laureate husband is murdered, biologist Katrina Stone can no longer ignore the secrecy that has increasingly pervaded his recent behavior. Her search for answers leads to a two-thousand-year-old medical mystery and the life of one of history’s most enigmatic women. Following the trail forged by her late husband, Katrina must separate truth from legend as she chases medicine from ancient Italy and Egypt to a clandestine modern-day war. Her quest will reveal a legacy of greed and murder and resurrect an ancient plague into the twenty-first century.

Kristen Elise, Ph.D. is a drug discovery biologist and the author of The Vesuvius Isotope and The Death Row Complex. She lives in San Diego, California. 

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