Food, Sex, Atoms, and Death
This summer, many of the original sculptures from Herculaneum are on view in Southern California in the Getty Villa exhibition "Buried by Vesuvius: Treasures from the Villa dei Papiri" (through Oct. 27, 2019). Consequently some of the loans will look familiar to Getty visitors, such as the Drunken Satyr (top of post), the paired Runners, and two of the stately women striking poses in the museum's Inner Peristyle Garden. Aggressively restored in the 18th century, and recently conserved at the Getty, the 2000-year-old statues look nearly as pristine as J. Paul Getty's 20th-century knock-offs.
|A marble statue of Athena Promachos discovered in the Villa dei Papiri. Roman, 1st century BC–1st century AD|
|Papyrus unrolling machine devised by Antonio Piaggio, Vatican curator of manuscripts. Design about 1756; this machine made in the 1800s|
Like atom, "Epicurean" is a Greek term that has survived to the present day, with changes. Today the word is hardly more than a synonym for "foodie." The Greek philosopher Epicurus (341–270 BC) said that a fine slice of cheese could be worth a whole banquet. Food, however, was a metaphor. Epicurus' doctrine was a blend of hedonism and existentialism. Though he did not deny the gods, Epicurus said they wouldn't lift a finger to help us. We are on our own. Despite that, death is not to be feared—though it really is the end, a dissolution into atoms. Bottom line: Make the best of whatever time you've got. The wise should aspire to pleasure, in moderation, in the company of good friends.
|Small bronze bust of Epicurus found in the Villa dei Papiri. Museo Archeologico Nazionale, Naples. Image: Giorgio Albano|
The Villa dei Papiri helped stock the notorious "Secret Room" of erotic art at the Naples Museum. The door to the room had three locks, requiring three keys (held by the museum's director, controller, and palace butler). There were periodic conversations about destroying the objects within, for the sake of decency.
|Piglet (1st century BC–1st century AD). Photo by Luigi Spina, courtesy Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli|
Even smaller is a iPhone-size sundial in the shape of a prosciutto ham. A missing tail served as the gnomon. The gallery label says: "Its unique shape may be a playful link to Epicurean philosophy, with the pig as symbol of tranquility and freedom from fear of death: piglet today, pork tomorrow—carpe diem."
|Prosciutto-shaped sundial (8 BC–79 AD), Rome. Photo by Luigi Spina, courtesy of Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Napoli|