In February 2016 the Kelsey Museum opens the largest show in its nearly 90-year history. Entitled Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii, this international loan exhibition will explore the lavish lifestyle and economic interests of ancient Rome’s wealthiest and most powerful citizens who vacationed along the Bay of Naples. Julius Caesar, Cicero, Augustus, and Nero all owned villas here. With more than 200 objects on loan from Italy, the exhibition focuses on two structures at Oplontis that were buried when Mount Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. Villa A is an enormous luxury villa that may once have belonged to the family of Nero’s second wife, Poppaea. The other (Oplontis B) is a nearby commercial-residential complex—a center for the trade in wine and other produce of villa lands.

The exhibition features one gallery that showcases a selection of extraordinary works of art—marble sculptures, wall paintings, and inlaid marble floors—which created an opulent setting for the owners of Villa A and the many guests they entertained. In contrast, humble objects of daily life—planting pots, mortar and pestle, and oil lamps—offer a glimpse of the lives of the slaves whose work made possible the owners’ elite lifestyle.

A second gallery evokes both the commercial and domestic life of Oplontis B. Commerce and trade are represented by shipping jars shown alongside a large, lavishly ornamented strong box where proceeds of trade were most likely kept. A display of domestic objects—bronze, glass, and pottery vessels—will hint at the lives of the “middle-class” residents of Oplontis B. The tragic end of life brought by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius takes a personal turn in an adjacent display that focuses on one of the 54 skeletons found in Oplontis B, that of a young pregnant woman who was carrying a large quantity of jewelry and coins during her failed attempt to escape. A selection of these objects provides a sense of what this woman and others like her regarded as the most valuable portable possessions to take with them in the hope of surviving the eruption.

A third gallery introduces visitors to the history of the excavations, the methods of archaeologists, and the environmental devastation caused by the volcanic eruption. In addition, a computer terminal with a 3D navigable model of Villa A and laser-scanned images of Oplontis B will allow visitors to relate the objects on exhibit to the archaeological sites—both as they look now and as archaeologists have reconstructed their ancient appearance.

A stimulating roster of events enhances the exhibition, which will be open until May 15, 2016. A printed catalogue is available in the gift shop.

Related Events

Exhibition Opening Lecture 
by Professor John R. Clarke, University of Texas–Austen, Codirector of the Oplontis Project
Friday, February 19, 6:00 pm, Pendleton Room, Michigan Union, 530 South State Street

Tour Leisure and Luxury with Exhibition Curator Elaine Gazda
Sunday, February 21, 2:00–3:00 pm, Kelsey Museum, Meader Gallery

Tour Leisure and Luxury exhibition with Dr. Lynley McAlpine
Sunday, March 13. 2:00–3:00 pm, Kelsey Museum, Meader Gallery

Conference: "Reframing Roman Luxury"
Friday–Saturday, April 1–2
Keynote: Professor Massimo Osanna, Superintendent of the Special Superintendency for the Archaeological Heritage of Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabia
See or call 734.647.0441 for details

Family Day
Saturday, April 9, 12:30–3:30 pm

Explore amazing 3D models of a luxurious Roman villa, discover the ancient lifestyle of Pompeii's rich and famous, create frescoes and mosaics to decorate your own home like a Pompeiian villa!

Film Screening of The Last Days of Pompeii (1913, silent film)
Thursday, May 5, 7:00 pm, Kelsey Museum
Discussion to follow

All events are free and open to the public.