Greetings, Ugly Object fans! I thought it would be fitting to acknowledge 2020’s halfway point (can you believe it?) with a pointy piece of volcanic stone. This object is likely a single unit of opus reticulatum, a Roman wall-building technique that sets hundreds of these angular stones into mortar. The effect was a visually pleasing diagonal pattern that was also — according to Vitruvius Pollio — inherently flawed and prone to cracking. This particular block is from Pompeii and traveled here to Ann Arbor under the auspices of Francis Kelsey.
From time to time I’ll encounter an object that works a bit of magic on me. When I look at this unassuming piece of wall stone, I’m transported directly to Pompeii. In my mind, I would walk by the old Hotel Suisse where Francis Kelsey stayed during his visits to the area, and wander around the archaeological park. I’d travel to nearby Stabiae and take a second look at some of the colorful wall paintings at Villa Arianna. And I’d take a boat ride (assuming you can do that!) over to the seaside city of Baiae, which I’ve never seen in person. Artifacts have a power to activate memories and spark our imaginations in a way that is hard to replicate.
Keep tuning in to the Kelsey blog for more glimpses into our collections and archives!
BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
In a little less than a month, the Kelsey’s latest exhibition,Leisure & Luxury in the Age of Nero: the Villas of Oplontis Near Pompeii, will, sadly, come down for good. This was the Kelsey’s most grandiose exhibition to date, the culmination of several year’s work and planning. For this exhibit, the Museum borrowed just over 230 artifacts from the ancient villas at Oplontis, many of them out of Italy for the first time ever, only a few ever even exhibited previously. This endeavor was a major undertaking by the Kelsey, spearheaded by curator Elaine Gazda, with the assistance of many staff. Reactions have been overwhelmingly positive and reassuring that our efforts were well worth it.
The exhibition showcases beautiful artwork from Roman times when Vesuvius erupted in AD 79. These were covered in ash for nearly two millennia, awaiting discovery but perfectly preserving spectacular sculptures, frescoes, jewelry, and daily household objects. With this exhibition, Professor Gazda shows the contents from two villas, and what life was like at the time. Come mid-May, the exhibition will begin its journey to two different museums in the US, and with that these beautiful objects will be gone.
But friends of the Kelsey are well aware that once Oplontis leaves the Kelsey, we will still have beautiful artwork from Pompeii on display. The Barosso watercolors, the 1926 replicas of a room at the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, are still visible in the Upjohn Exhibit Hall, in their own special room. These watercolors will be with us past the current exhibition, allowing visitors to gaze upon the level of craftsmanship not only of Maria Barosso, but of the original Roman artists as well. This space is a highlight of the collections, a must see for any visit to the Kelsey.
What some of our newer friends will not know is that the watercolors were not always on display in such a space. In fact, the artwork was rolled up and put away in storage for the majority of its life. In 1926, Maria Barosso painted these at the behest of Franics Kelsey. They were soon put on display in Italy under the auspices of Benito Mussolini, then rolled and shipped to Michigan, where they lay dormant for over 70 years. Throughout its history, before the construction of the Upjohn Exhibit Hall and its opening in 2009, the Kelsey simply did not have the space to properly display these paintings. They were too large to display in the spaces of Newberry, and the building did not have the proper climate control and lighting to safely exhibit them. Instead, they were kept in a locked cabinet in collections storage where they teased potential use in an unknown future.
This month’s “From the Archives” reminds some of our longtime friends, and brings to light for our newer friends, an endeavor to have these out for view. In 2000, Professor Gazda curated the exhibition The Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii: Ancient Ritual, Modern Muse. This was the Kelsey’s first successful attempt at having the watercolors out and visible, not just locked where no one could see them. However, even then the Kelsey was not able to show all the panels as they should be viewed. The temporary exhibition space, where the current gift shop is now located, was simply not large enough for all the panels. In order to do this, the Kelsey had to partner with the Museum of Art. This exhibition was a multi-venue show, with part on view at the Kelsey, including some complementary artifacts and the full-size mirror group panel, and the complete room on view at the Museum of Art.
The Kelsey archives do not only contain the history of the archaeological excavations and forays into Europe by Kelsey and Swain and friends, but we also maintain the history of the Museum into modern times. Every exhibition we have put on is carefully recorded, making it possible for us to learn from our past, see what we have done, how it was done. It is humbling to see where the Kelsey was just 16 years ago, and the limits we had to face. Despite these limitations, however, the staff and curators were able to overcome and do the best we could with the resources we had. Back then, we had no idea a space such as Upjohn would be coming to us, we could only hope.
The files in the exhibition archives contain old posters, flyers, photos, even layout designs. These are a few of the examples we present this month. And it acts as a reminder that even though Oplontis will soon be going away, we still have the beautiful Barosso watercolors to enjoy for many years to come.
BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
The Kelsey Museum’s current special exhibit Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero is full of insanely gorgeous objects from the villas of Oplontis near Pompeii. But guess what? The Kelsey has a few objects on view in this exhibit, too, and you probably won’t be surprised to learn that some of them are, you know, not insanely gorgeous.
This month’s Ugly Object is a marble sample — basically, a polished rock — and it’s on view in a section of the exhibit that demonstrates how the villas’ surfaces were adorned with decorative stones. You see the object here before conservation treatment to remove the collector’s label. The label — which we saved, of course — says: “From the Great Theater at Ephesus, Sept 6th 1867.”
It was collected and given to the Kelsey by James D. Candler, a businessman, builder, and traveler who was based in Detroit in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
This stone sample and others like it have been the focus of recent research at the Kelsey. IPCAA alumnae Leah Long and Lynley McAlpine, U-M professor and Kelsey curator Elaine Gazda, and University of Akron emeritus professor Clayton Fant have been studying the Kelsey’s stone samples, in part to see if analytical techniques like stable isotope analysis can connect samples like this one to their sources and buildings of origin.
BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museum Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
The exhibition Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero has now been open at the Kelsey Museum for just over a month, and it continues to bring in large crowds of people who marvel at the luxuriousness of a Roman settlement at the time of the eruption of Vesuvius. That devastation wreaked havoc on a large swath of land across the Italian countryside. Entire towns were demolished, enveloped by the falling ash and pumice. Thousands of lives perished, buildings destroyed, the geography permanently altered. The aftermath left carnage, but it also provided an opportunity to freeze the city of Pompeii and the town of Herculaneum and surrounding areas in a manner that shows the modern viewer what life was like at that particular moment when the world ended for so many.
The site of Pompeii has fascinated the public and scholars for centuries. It is an opportunity to view the ancient world almost directly, without the inevitable change that affects every other society. There is still much to learn about the site, and about ancient Roman life.
In the 1890s, a young Latin scholar by the name of Francis W. Kelsey visited Pompeii, as it was an area of interest for him. There, he met renowned Pompeii authority August Mau, a German scholar who was directed by his doctors to move to a warmer climate for his health. Mau obliged, and moved to Italy. There, Mau and Kelsey formed a strong bond, such that Kelsey was invited to pose with Mau’s “Giro,” his group of students (From the Archives — September 2015).
Through this strong relationship, Kelsey was given the opportunity to translate Mau’s book on Pompeii into English. Kelsey proved to be quite an adept scholar, publishing the translation before Mau could publish the original. Kelsey even managed to insert additional materials into his edition, information not found in the Mau publication.
The Kelsey archives hold evidence of this work, and that is the topic for this month’s “From the Archives.” The holdings of an archives is often thought to be the papers of an institution, letters, manuscripts, photographs. In the world of archives, libraries, and museums (ALM, or LAM), there is increasing overlap in the materials held by each. All three could hold materials normally found in the others. In the Kelsey, we sometimes come across atypical archival items, such as this box full of copper plates. Francis Kelsey’s handwriting is found throughout the box and on notes found within. We know it was he who stored these plates that were used for printing the Pompeii book in the box originally. These plates, made of copper and wood, while some are rubber and wood, contain the images of Pompeii used during the printing process. A faint image of a scene from the site can be seen in the example.
While the original intent of Kelsey was to safeguard the plates, his act has a secondary function. The box itself, perhaps seen as nothing of note at the time, gives us a view of life at the turn of the century (from 19th to 20th). Chiozza & Turchi was a soap making company in Italy (Pontelagoscuro). From this box, we note the decorations used in commercial products. What were denizens of the early 1900s seeing when they went to market? What companies existed then, and what products were they selling?
A quick search for the company returns discussion of other Chiozza e Turchi advertisements, and how people are collecting them. There may be no value to the box itself, but it is interesting to hold an article viewed as commonplace then but so full of intrigue now. And this is how many museum workers and archaeologists feel when working with their collections. A chance to see a glimpse of life thousands of years ago, or even 100 years ago, is exciting. But these objects that were modern in 1900 depicting a time nearly 2000 years earlier, are now themselves historical artifacts. In time, the objects I use every day will meet this same fate, and a future archivist or archaeologist will marvel at something I overlooked every day. And the process will continue.
BY SUZANNE DAVIS, Curator for Conservation, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
Our current special exhibition, Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero, features objects from the Villa Oplontis, one of the big Roman villas near Pompeii, Italy. Most of the objects are on loan to us from Italy, and let’s face it — they are gorgeous. But don’t worry, because when you start to swoon from the beauty, the Kelsey can apply smelling salts; we have some fantastically ugly objects from the same part of Italy.
This one, a hoe blade, is one of my favorites. Roman villas were farm houses. Yes, some of them were very fancy farmhouses (witness Oplontis), but farming was occurring! Then and now, the grain for our daily bread does not grow itself. On the second floor of the Kelsey near the top of the stairs, you can see a variety of Roman farming implements, including this hoe. It is a large, industrial-sized hoe, much larger than my little garden hoe (although the Romans had small ones, too). A lot of the original metal is lost, but you can see some details. For example, at the top you can see the where the metal starts to curve upward — this is where the wood handle would have attached. You can also see how the sides start to curve in near the top, giving the hoe a shape sort of like a flat shovel blade. The chunks you see on this blade are little rocks that got stuck in the mineralized corrosion layer that formed while the blade was underground for almost 2,000 years.
If you feel like the Romans lived in a world apart, which is how it can seem if you imagine only the people who lived in fancy houses like Oplontis, take a few steps and reconnect with the reality of this hoe. If you are a gardener, you can also think about this when you turn your garden over for early spring planting (maybe this very month!); your springtime chore is one that has been performed by people for millennia.
BY SEBASTIÁN ENCINA, Museums Collections Manager, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology
Welcome to the inaugural blog post for the series “From the Archives,” where we will present special finds from the Kelsey Museum archives. Besides the magnificent collection of art and artifacts held by the museum, we also have a rich archival collection that is full of surprises. The archives help support the collections and the mission of the museum by documenting the institution’s past and activities. The archives house a vast collection of photographs, maps from excavations, correspondence and journals, the papers of individual collectors, even 16-mm silent film. Several lifetime’s worth of research and work occupy this space.
For our initial post, we dig far back, to 1893. Everyone begins somewhere, including our namesake, Professor Francis Willey Kelsey. Though our exhibition A Man of Many Parts showcased Kelsey’s early years in upstate New York and at the University of Rochester, the Kelsey archives only go as far back as 1893, when a newly hired young professor at the University of Michigan traveled to Italy to further his research. Kelsey worked with Pompeii scholar and specialist August Mau, a German art historian who wrote several renowned books on the site.
In 1893, Kelsey began collecting artifacts that would find their way back to Michigan and eventually be deposited at the Kelsey Museum. It was then that he visited Carthage and picked up a lamp fragment that would become Kelsey accession number 1, currently on display in the permanent galleries. That seed would usher in an era of collecting for Michigan that carried on over a century, forming the core of the Museum’s art and artifacts. As we look back on the numerous names that have formed the Kelsey collections, it is important to remember the young man who helped foster that collecting culture at Michigan.
This photograph was “discovered” recently in the archives, as it had not been previously catalogued. Though we do not know who the photographer was, we do know this photo and others in the same series belonged, in some way, to Kelsey. His unique handwriting is found on the envelope holding this photo, and on many other photographs in the series. For this reason, these photos are called the Kelsey series and use the numbers he assigned. This particular picture is numbered Kelsey 132 II. Kelsey captioned it and two others like it “Pompeii. Dr. Mau and the ‘Giro’.”
The remaining photos in the Kelsey series show Mau and Mau’s wife, views of Pompeii, and other sites around the Mediterranean during Kelsey’s 1893 sojourn. They are all glass, quite fragile, as photography at that time, before the introduction of the original Kodak, was all accomplished using large cameras with glass plate negatives.
BY EMMA SACHS, PhD candidate, Interdepartmental Program in Classical Art and Archaeology and Museum Studies, University of Michigan, blogging from New York, where she is a Bothmer Fellow at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This year I have been conducting research and writing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art as a Bothmer Fellow in the Department of Greek and Roman Art. I vividly remember the day I found out I’d be coming to the Met — February 21, 2014 — because that was the day Pompeii opened in IMAX. Expecting that this would be a major box office hit, I preordered tickets and dragged my extremely amenable friend to the theater 45 minutes early to stand in line — only to be told by a confused theater employee that there was no line, and the theater would be available about 10 minutes before the show. We should have lowered our expectations when a woman in the restroom loudly announced that “If anyone is planning to see the movie Pompeii, don’t do it!!” But sometimes hope is blind and academics naïve — especially when their field of study is featured in 3D. Needless to say, it was terrible. Vesuvius couldn’t have erupted too soon, and even when it finally happened, the IMAX effects were mediocre. If we had to sit through a poorly crafted story, we could at least have been rewarded with a few more fiery rocks flying at our faces. That evening I was busy explaining my disappointment over the phone to my parents when the fellowship offer from the Met appeared in my inbox. So it wasn’t a bad evening after all.
I moved to New York in August and started at the Met in September. The Bothmer Fellowship was awarded in support of my dissertation research, and accordingly most of my time has been spent closely studying the museum’s fantastic collection and writing at my desk in the Watson Library, the museum’s central library. (The Met has 28 libraries in total!) I also routinely participate in talks, tours, and lectures arranged to introduce Fellows to the museum’s 17 curatorial departments, its system of administration, and active projects.
The focus of my research is wall painting from the Bay of Naples region, where the volcano Vesuvius erupted in AD 79 and buried much of the surrounding region, including the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum and nearby villas in the countryside. While this disaster by no means “froze” this region in time, perfectly preserving it for posterity, the volcanic debris did help to preserve a considerable amount of wall painting, protecting it from exposure the elements. For this reason, the majority of the corpus of Roman fresco comes from Campania, and any systematic study ever done that pertains to “Roman” wall painting has its roots in this material and in this region. The Met has the best collection of Roman wall painting in the Western Hemisphere, so it is naturally a magnet for wall painting specialists. I am particularly interested in the museum’s paintings from the Villa of Publius Fannius Synistor in Boscoreale, which was excavated in 1899–1902. In 1903, many of the villa’s frescoes, mosaics, and smaller finds were sold at a Paris auction and dispersed to numerous institutions and private collectors around the world. Nineteen fresco sections were purchased by the Met in 1903, and they have been a highlight of the museum’s collection ever since. I should note that a few small finds eventually made their way to the Kelsey Museum, including bronze hardware, agricultural tools, and a stone rotary mill on display on the Kelsey’s second floor.
While my experience thus far has been very fruitful for my dissertation, I have also learned a great deal about the museum and its objects. The great breadth and depth of the museum’s collection of antiquities — dating from the fifth millennium BC to the fourth century AD — allows for an encyclopedic display, organized by time and region (much like the Kelsey’s installation, if a bit more expansive). While I came to the museum a little skeptical of this linear march through time, I have observed that it is accessible to many different kinds of audiences: easily comprehensible to casual visitors and yet helpfully contextual for specialists. One of my favorite Fellows’ activities was conducting a tour of the Greek and Roman galleries to about 20 other scholars. This allowed me to explore the Met’s institutional history and the prominent role the art of antiquity has played since the museum’s founding in 1870. Indeed, the first object accessioned by the Met was actually a Roman sarcophagus from Tarsus in southeast Turkey. In 1870 it was donated to the museum — which at that time only existed on paper — as a gesture of diplomacy by the American vice-consul in Tarsus, Abdo Dabbas. The most sizable acquisition made by the museum in the next thirty years was that of the Cesnola collection, about 35,000 ancient objects from Cyprus, purchased from General Luigi Palma di Cesnola in 1874 and 1876. This collection formed the core of the Met’s early holdings, and in fact the general himself became the first director of the museum in 1879, holding the position until his death in 1904. While as a Fellow I have learned so much about the Met and its collections, as always, the Kelsey is never very far out of sight. Some pieces from the Cesnola collection eventually made their way to the Kelsey and are on view in the Cypriot case on the first floor.
Following a brief hiatus from display, the Kelsey Museum’s famous renderings of the Villa of the Mysteries fresco cycle are once again on view. Commissioned by Francis Kelsey himself in the mid-1920s, the watercolors were painted by Italian artist and archaeologist Maria Barosso at a scale of 5/6 the size of the original frescoes in Pompeii. The watercolors captured the vivid color of the frescoes before color photography existed. They have served as an important educational tool and document of the paintings’ condition at the time the renderings were created. The original frescoes have darkened significantly since the time of the Barosso commission, and they are currently undergoing laser cleaning by conservators at Pompeii.
The Kelsey was able to put the watercolors on permanent display for the first time in 2008, thanks to the space provided by the new Upjohn Exhibit Wing, and an IMLS grant to support their conservation treatment and installation in the galleries. Conservators at ICA Art Conservation carried out this complex treatment, as well as some recent repair work to the watercolors’ mounting system that required their temporary deinstallation. It took about three days to reinstall the massive panels, the largest of which is 5 x 20 feet.
We are so grateful to conservator Jamye Jamison, Chris Pelrine, and 05 (that’s right, our colleague’s name is zero-five) for all their hard work!
When it comes to the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology’s collections, not all artifacts are created equal. Some call out to us intellectually, others emotionally. To that end, we asked our curators to name their favorite Kelsey artifact or object. Here is the third in a series of seven.
BY ELAINE GAZDA, Curator of Roman and Hellenistic Collections, Kelsey Museum of Archaeology, University of Michigan
Favorite Artifact. “The Room of the Mysteries”, A Watercolor Representation 1925-27 by Maria Barosso
Why. “As a historian of Roman art, I have long been interested in sculptures and paintings of the Roman era that have been labeled in museums and textbooks as Roman copies after lost Greek originals. The watercolors painted by Maria Barosso fascinate me as beautiful illustrations of how copies of works of art become works of art in their own right and take on lives of their own. Barosso’s paintings are aesthetically appealing evocations of the Roman paintings that still remain on the walls of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, but they are also powerful visual statements of the ways in which this 20th century artist’s own aesthetic sensibility transformed the “original” she copied. In her correspondence with Professor Kelsey, Barosso expressed her desire to capture the original beauty of the Roman paintings. This required her to look beyond the damage that the Roman paintings had suffered from the volcanic eruption of AD 79 and centuries of burial and creatively re-imagine them in an undamaged state. In the process, Barosso’s own style inflected the Roman imagery with an early 20th-century Italian “accent.” Such subtle stylistic inflections can also be detected in ancient Roman works that emulate earlier Greek models.”
Background. The Villa of the Mysteries was situated in fertile farmland outside the walls of Pompeii, a short distance northwest of the city. It was discovered and partially excavated in 1909 by the owner of the land whose workmen first uncovered a lavishly adorned room containing murals that rapidly became famous. Later excavations in 1929-1930 by the archaeological authorities of Pompeii showed that approximately half of the villa had been devoted to agricultural and other utilitarian activities. The other half had been the proprietor’s residence, with splendidly decorated rooms, some with large windows, and terraces that provided vistas out to the countryside, the mountains, and the Bay of Naples.
Before the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 forever altered the landscape, some of the best views from the Villa of the Mysteries were to be enjoyed from a large reception and dining room known to archaeologists as Room 5. This room preserves monumental murals that relate to the Greek god Dionysos. The Romans knew this god of acriculture, wine, and the bacchanal as Bacchus or Liber. The roughly life-size, mostly female figures appear to enact rituals related to the mystery cult of this god, whose sacred rites were known only to initiates. The Villa of the Mysteries takes its modern name from the imagery in this room. The identity of the Roman owner of the villa is not known.
The murals in the Villa of the Mysteries have few counterparts in Roman art. Coincidentally, the villa of Publius Fannius Synistor near Boscoreale, from which the Kelsey Museum’s farming equipment, mill, and hardware come, had wall paintings of comparable scale and quality. Most of them are now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the National Archaeological Museum in Naples. The murals of the Villa of the Mysteries remain in their original context in Pompeii.
About the Watercolors. The paintings in the Villa of the Mysteries became famous with a few years of their discovery in 1909. Although the murals were made known to the world through published black and white photographs, color reproductions were not available at that time. In 1924, before the villa was fully uncovered, Professor Francis W. Kelsey commissioned a large-scale color replica for the University of Michigan so that scholars, students, and the public would be able to study and enjoy the murals in all their glory. He contracted with an Italian artist, Maria Barosso, who was the head archaeological artist for the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill excavations in Rome, to paint the replica.
Although Kelsey wanted a full-scale replica, Maiuri agreed to allow Barosso to paint only a five-sixths scale version. The end result, nonetheless, evokes the monumentality of the Roman paintings. Professor Kelsey intended also to reproduce the floor in an installation that he planned for a new gallery at the University of Michigan. Kelsey unfortunately died in May 1927, before the paintings arrived in Ann Arbor. In partial fulfillment of his plan to suggest the original effect of the ancient room, the Kelsey Museum created a reduced-scale version of the outer border of the Roman floor.
Find It. Climb the center stairs to the second floor of the William E. Upjohn Exhibit Wing. Make a slight turn left, then right directly toward the end of the building. Then turn right again into the recreated room that showcases the murals, just as Professor Kelsey envisioned so long ago. Lights will come on as you enter.