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The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse

October 1-November 19, 2000
West Gallery

Maria Barosso
Dionysiac Mural Cycle (replica), Villa of the Mysteries

In 1909, excavations of a private residence just outside the walls of the city of Pompeii revealed an intriguing series of frescoes. Executed in around 60-40 B.C., these paintings feature women engaging in rituals that may have related to the cult of Dionysus (also known as Bacchus), perhaps initiation rites in preparation for marriage. The painting cycle captivated UM Professor of Latin Francis Kelsey (1858-1927), namesake of the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, who commissioned a near life-sized replica of the frescoes with the dream of installing them in Ann Arbor. Some of these watercolor paintings, executed by Italian artist Maria Barosso, were briefly exhibited in Rome in 1927, then sent on to the University of Michigan where they remained in storage for nearly seventy years.

An innovative exhibition organized by the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology and the Museum of Art will finally realize Professor Kelsey's ambition to reconstruct the frescoes of the Villa of the Mysteries on the UM campus. At the Museum of Art, the majestic Barosso watercolors will be on display, along with Greek, South Italian, Etruscan, and Roman artifacts, and sculptures, painted vases, bronzes, wall painting fragments, terracotta figures, cameos, and other works of art. A computerized, virtual reality walk-through of the Villa of the Mysteries site will attempt to reconstruct the experience of ancient visitors first encountering the murals. Also included are contemporary works that draw inspiration from the Villa paintings.

At the Kelsey Museum, sixty ancient artifacts focus on the social, religious, and iconographic contexts of the Villa of the Mysteries cycle, offering fascinating insights into the Villa and the possible meanings it held for the women of ancient Pompeii. Professor Elaine Gazda, curator of Hellenistic and Roman Antiquities at the Kelsey Museum, worked with a team of graduate students for two years to bring this far-reaching project to completion. A widely published authority on Roman art, former director of the Kelsey Museum, and trustee of the American Academy in Rome, Professor Gazda is editor of an accompanying exhibition catalogue which features essays on new interpretations of the Villa of the Mysteries frieze and contemporary responses, scholarly as well as artistic, to the paintings.

The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, its related exhibition catalogue and educational programming, received major funding from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation. Additional funding was generously provided by Helmut Stern, Ann Taylor van Rosevelt, Gregory and Margene Henry, Ginny Patton Moss and Cruse W. Moss, Sheila and Steven Hamp, the Friends of the Museum of Art, and the Associates of the Kelsey Museum. The following University of Michigan units also provided critical support for these projects: the Office of the Vice President for Research; the College of Literature, Science, and the Arts; Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies; Institute for Research on Women and Gender; the Arts of Citizenship Program; the School of Art + Design; the Institute for the Humanities; the Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology; the Department of the History of Art; and the Department of Classical Studies. Thanks go to Professor Diane Kirkpatrick and graduate students Jessica Davis, Elizabeth de Grummond, Cathering Hammer, Brenda Longfellow, Molly Swetnam-Burland, Drew Wilburn, and Shoshanna Kirk for their research, collaboration, and many other contributions to this project.