1 January 2009

Go for the art, stay for the volcanoes

Posted by Jessica Ball

Happy New Year! Here’s to a successful, productive, safe, and above all fun new year. I’ve recently noticed that I’ve been added to a list of the 100 Best Blogs for Earth Science Scholars, which is quite an honor, and especially since I’m in such great company. Seems like a good way to start off the year to me!

A few days ago I went to Washington DC to get my bi-yearly fix of the museums, which (for me) generally means drooling over the volcanic rock displays in the Natural History museum and scarfing down gelato in the in the cafe between the National Gallery buildings. (I also saw the newly-renovated American History museum, which was somewhat unimpressive, and the new Ocean Hall at NMNH, which was awesome. Callan’s review pretty much covers everything I could come up with to say.)

My favorite stop of the day, however, was in the East Building of the National Gallery. They’re currently hosting an exhibition about pre- and post-eruption Pompeii called Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples. Most of the exhibit is devoted to the way that wealthy Romans decorated their homes, and how they liked to copy and emulate Greek art, and it’s really neat; the frescoes are especially beautiful, and the statuary, while probably not something I’d want in my own home, is incredibly lifelike and masterfully done. (It’s also very cool to look Julius Caesar in the eye, because you get a sense of who the man was rather than the legend.) Unfortunately, there was no photography of any kind allowed in the exhibition, so I can’t show you what was on display. There is a pretty neat video about the exhibition on the NGA website, though.

The most exciting part of the exhibit, in my opinion, wasn’t the sculpture or the frescoes, but the room that showed 18th-century romanticizing of the 79 A.D. eruption. Why? Because it had these paintings on display:

Pierre-Jacques Volaire, The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 1777; from the North Carolina Museum of Art

Joseph Wright of Derby, Vesuvius from Portici, 1774-1776; from the Huntington Library, California

And a copy of this book:

For a volcanologist, you can’t beat that. I got a few funny looks when I was explaining to my dad why I was so excited about seeing this part of the exhibition, but there were a few smiles in there too. And it isn’t every day you get to see such beautiful work that also reflects some of the earliest beginnings of the science of volcanology.

The exhibit will be at the National Gallery until March 22, so if you have a chance to stop by, I would definitely recommend it. (Even though the NGA isn’t part of the Smithsonian system, it’s still free, so it’s affordable even for a poor grad student like me. Unless you give into the temptation of the gelato bar, that is.)