Imagine a seaside resort with a string of luxury villas dotting the length of the headland. Panoramic views. A playground to the rich and famous. A place where politics, business and leisure collide.
Forget the Hamptons, Palm Beach and Martha's Vineyard. In the first centuries B.C. and A.D., many of the wealthiest and most powerful Romans -- including Julius Caesar, Cicero and the emperors Augustus and Tiberius -- spent summers in the coastal villas of Stabiae in Italy. The Roman elite would entertain political friends and business clients in their lavish homes, decorated by stunning sculptures, stucco reliefs and frescoes made by the region's most talented artists.
In a rare opportunity to view these ancient artworks and archaeological artifacts, the San Diego Museum of Art presents "In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite." The exhibition, which runs through May 14, contains nearly 70 works, including 24 remarkably well-preserved frescoes and 11 stucco fragments originating from four partially excavated villas. Some of the frescoes are among the highest quality ever seen from the Roman past.
Placed high on a bluff overlooking the Bay of Naples, the Stabiae site was well-preserved by the same catastrophic eruption that buried Pompeii in 79 B.C. In 1749, archaeological excavations began under King Charles VII of Naples and unearthed the magnificent villas of Stabiae. The frescoes that were discovered revealed the heritage of Greek culture in Rome among the moneyed elite. Many frescoes were removed for official display or use as diplomatic gifts. By 1782, the trenches had been refilled and the land returned to farming.
The site was forgotten until a passionate amateur rediscovered one of the villas and began re-excavation in the 1950s. The area is only partially excavated, while acres more have yet to be explored. The ongoing work is now the focus of Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation, one of the largest cultural and scientific collaborations ever undertaken by the United States and Italy. The organization will transform the site into a 150-acre archaeological park.
The "In Stabiano" works feature popular themes borrowed from tragic theater and mythology. The fresco images were often imitations of famous paintings in collections in nearby Naples or Rome and might have been used as centerpiece wall decorations, such as the panels devoted to the mythological figures Flora, Diana, Medea and Leda.
The exhibition marks the first time the frescoes from Stabiae have toured the United States. In conjunction with "In Stabiano," the San Diego Museum of Art presents a slate of lectures, classes and a theater production.
Coming up next, the Old Globe presents "Androcles and the Lion" on March 4 and 11, at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. Set in ancient Rome, this classic tale tells of a slave boy who removes a splinter from a lion's paw. Written in the style of Italian commedia dell'arte, the slapstick comedy features six members of the Globe's acting company and is aimed at children age 7 and up. Tickets are $5 for adults and $3 for youths under 18.
On March 31, SDMA's library manager James Grebl, Ph.D., will offer a historic account of the exploration, exploitation and conservation of the ancient Roman sites buried by the eruption of Vesuvius. His lecture, "Recovering antiquity: The discovery and excavation of the Vesuvian towns and villas," begins at 10 a.m. and costs $10.
On May 6, three leading experts from across the nation will present new research on Roman life. HÈrica Valladares, Ph.D., will speak about the paintings of the Villa Arianna at Stabiae; John Clarke, Ph.D., will explore recent excavations and discoveries at the Villa of Oplontis at Torre Annunziata; and David Smith, Ph.D., will offer a geologist's look at the eruption of Vesuvius and its consequences. The symposium is from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. in the James S. Copley Auditorium. Continental breakfast will be served beginning at 9 a.m. Cost is $10 for members, $12 for nonmembers and free to students with ID.
PROGRAM: "In Stabiano: Exploring the Ancient Seaside Villas of the Roman Elite."
Organization: San Diego Museum of Art
Dates: Through May 14
Exhibit Hours: Tuesdays through Sundays from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. except Thursdays, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Location: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park
More information: (619) 232-7931, www.sdmart.org