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Italian frescoes portray golden age of Roman Empire

    The ancient Roman civilisation may well be described as an important seed of world civilisation and human history. Roman political, social, artistic and everyday life had far-reaching influence on European culture. 

    From tomorrow (July 18) to October 5, the Hong Kong Museum of Art will stage "Otium Ludens Leisure and Play: Ancient Relics of the Roman Empire", an exhibition featuring 170 works of art selected from several villas in Stabiae, Italy, including frescoes and stuccoed decorations as well as terracotta, glass, bronze, iron and marble objects and a complete installation of three wall sections. This is another exhibition that enables visitors to learn more about the history, art and culture of the ancient Roman Empire, following "The World of the Etruscans" exhibition in 2006.

    Jointly presented by the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, the Regione Campania, the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei and the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation in collaboration with the Consulate General of Italy in Hong Kong, the exhibition is organised by the Hong Kong Museum of Art, the Regione Campania, the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei and the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation.

    Speaking at the opening ceremony of the exhibition today (July 17), the Acting Director of Leisure and Cultural Services, Mr Chung Ling-hoi, said the earthquake and flooding in China, the cyclone that hit Burma, the earthquake that struck Japan, and severe storms and tornadoes that have swept across US states had caused many casualties and mass destruction.

    "They were hard for us and almost 2,000 years ago, the ancient people in today's Italy might share the same feelings," Mr Chung said.

    "On August 24, AD79, the great volcano Vesuvius erupted and entombed the nearby region of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae with its lava and ash. This was a great tragedy. In 1749, the King of Naples discovered that the eruption, sad as it was, had preserved the great art of Rome in the form of frescoes and other artifacts in extraordinary state and delivered to all of mankind an incredible cultural heritage.

    "After years of archaeological excavations and studies, the everyday life and artistic splendour of the Roman elites of 2,000 years ago are brought before our eyes again," Mr Chung said.

    Two thousand years ago, the region of Stabiae, with its many luxury residences, was a summer resort for the wealthy elite of Rome.  In the lavishly decorated villas, they could enjoy panoramic views of the Bay of Naples, a temperate climate, produce of the fertile land, and the thermal mineral springs, while they conducted business, ran the empire and at the same time socialised and enjoyed themselves during the summer months. Despite the entombment of the residences, the Vesuvius eruption preserved the frescoes and artifacts in the Stabian villas in remarkable condition.

    The fresco was regarded as the most important genre in Roman art at that time.  The walls and ceilings of the villas were covered with paintings, which visually and aesthetically enhanced the otherwise rather minimalist interiors.  Apart being decorative, the architectural layout of the frescoes also gave the illusion of luxury and space to a rather ordinary room. In the high residences of Stabiae, the splendidly painted walls were ostentations of wealth and excellent conversation pieces.

    Different rooms in the villas served different functions.  Their degree of importance was shown by the artistic attention and use of colour applied to the frescoes. The triclinium (dining room) was the most frequently used venue to entertain guests, so the frescoes tended to be the most elaborate and the finest in composition and execution. The pigments used were also more expensive, such as reds, blues and greens, which gave a sense of opulence to the room.  The paintings had a wide variety of subjects, among which the most prominent were the Romans’ favoured mythological figures such as Melpomene, the muse of tragedy, Apollo and Dionysus.  One unique feature in Stabian frescoes was the use of a single figure as subject, rather than the more common adoption of groups. 

    The exhibits, such as the frescoes, and terracotta, glass, bronze and iron objects, will add interest to the study of the way of life of the Romans at that time. 

    The exhibition is sponsored by many organisations. They include the Friends of the Hong Kong Museum of Art, which sponsors coach services for school and group visits, Champion Technology, A Better Tomorrow, the Chinese World Cultural Heritage Foundation and World Cultural Relics Protection Foundation.

    To enhance viewers’ appreciation of the exhibition, a lecture “Otium Ludens Leisure and Play: Ancient Relics of the Roman Empire” by the Co-ordinator General of Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation, Dr Thomas Noble Howe, will be held on Saturday (July 19) at 2.30pm. The lecture will be in English. Admission to this lecture is free and 150 seats are available on a first-come-first-served basis. For details, please visit the Museum of Art’s website.

    Admission to this exhibition is $20, with a half-price concession for full-time students, people with disabilities and senior citizens aged 60 or above. No free admission on Wednesdays. The Museum Weekly Pass is also not valid for this exhibition.

    The Museum of Art is located at 10 Salisbury Road, Tsim Sha Tsui, Kowloon. It opens from 10am to 6pm from Sundays to Wednesdays and Fridays, and from 10am to 8pm on Saturdays. It is closed on Thursdays (except public holidays).

    For details of the exhibition, please visit the Museum of Art's website at or call 2721 0116.

Ends/Thursday, July 17, 2008


One of the frescoes, "Offer bearer", which was unearthed from the Villa San Marco. On a white background outlined by the profile of an architectural structure with a griffin on a shelf, a female figure stands on the lower edge. Her face is slightly turned to her right and her body is in slow movement in the opposite direction. She wears a plain purple tunic, secured on her left shoulder and gathered at the waist by a gilt belt, leaving both arms and part of the bust exposed. From the left forearm hangs a portion of the mantle, the hand holding a tray with the offers, as the right hand holds a wine jug.  

One of the frescoes, "Coffer with a large medallion", which was unearthed from the Villa Arianna. Corner square with cinnabar cornice and ribbon motif decorating the ceiling, inscribed with a light coloured medallion, bordered by leaves and flowers with the trunk of a young woman in the foreground. She is facing left, her head covered by a thin white veil revealing her hair gathered at the nape. She wears gold earrings and is draped with a red tunic and cloak pinned over her shoulders. Behind is the face of a young man with short straight hair and fringe. The coffer was part of the flat stretch of ceiling of which only a fragment of the central lowered ceiling has been preserved depicting an elderly silenus with a kantharos. Pompeii had very few portraits, and this is one of the rare ones.


One of the frescoes, "Hippogryph", which was unearthed from the Casa Salese villa rustica. Accessed from the colonnaded central courtyard of the rustica, room eight has a decoration in the Third Style, with the middle zone panels showing on a white background single animals in movement (lion, hare, panther), removed from the wall during excavations to ensure their preservation. Such simple and essential decoration has frequent parallels in Pompeian paintings. The panel, coming from the left side of the southern wall, displays a flying hippogryph. The hippogryph was the mythological offspring of a griffin and a mare. It thus has the head of an eagle, claws armed with talons, and wings covered with feathers, the rest of its body being that of a horse.


The exhibition, “Otium Ludens Leisure and Play: Ancient Relics of the Roman Empire”, opened on Thursday (July 17) at the Hong Kong Museum of Art. Acting Director of the Leisure and Cultural Services Department, Mr Chung Ling-hoi (third left) and other guests led by the Co-ordinator General of the Restoring Ancient Stabiae Foundation, Dr Thomas Noble Howe (right) visit the exhibition.





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