02 April 2008

Stolen Oplontis fresco on show in Rome

Huge Roman landscape mural on display after 40 years abroad

Rome, March 27 - A Roman fresco recovered by art police from a private house in Paris last month went on show to the public for the first time in Rome on Thursday. This is the painting (now in lamentably fragmentary condition) that I wrote about in the post Poppaea's Painting in Paris, when the police operation, dubbed Operation Ulysses,

uncovered a haul of more than a thousand archaeological finds and a series of outstanding Impressionist forgeries. The trail initially led investigators to Milan and then eventually abroad, first to Switzerland and later onto Paris. The fresco was finally tracked down to an elegant house in the French capital..

But whose "elegant house" in Paris was then unknown. The latest news names him (and should shame him) -- Jacques Marcoux, "a publisher and art collector" and his house is in the undoubtably swish Place Vendome in the centre of Paris. But who, really, is Monsieur Marcoux? Googling brings up no information at all. That's strange. Who is unGoogl-able in this day and age?

The News Report

Archaeologists believe the painting was illegally removed during the 1970s from the walls of a villa in Oplontis, one of the towns covered in ash and cinder during the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79. Dating to the first century AD, the painting shows a bower of vines, a satyr riding a mule, and a cloaked woman making a sacrifice at an altar.

The three-metre long fresco is the largest landscape-themed painting ever found in the Vesuvian area. ''It's rare to see a landscape fresco of these dimensions,'' said government archaeology chief Stefano De Caro. ''Usually they are small pictures showing ports or wild nature scenes. But here we have a rural landscape, with rows of vines and a big shrine - perhaps that of Dionysus (the Greek god of wine),'' he added.

Although archaeologists have yet to work out exactly where the fragmented fresco comes from, De Caro said it may once have decorated exterior walls overlooking a garden.

Italian art police worked with Swiss, Belgian and French investigators to track down the painting, which they knew had been in Geneva in the early 1980s. The fresco hung for some time in the house of a rich industrialist in Brussels before eventually finding its way to Paris. Investigators discovered the painting in the house of French publisher and art collector Jacques Marcoux in Place Vendome in February.

After its 40-year trip abroad, the fresco has gone on display at Palazzo Massimo as part of an exhibition of wall paintings Rosso pompeiano from Pompeii, Herculaneum and other Vesuvian towns that runs until 1 June.

De Caro said the fresco would be returned to the Pompeii archaeology superintendency when the show ends.

The report in English at the website of ANSA.it (update: link expired) and with a little more information in Italian via Archaeoblog


  1. Lucius Verus Invades Iraq
    Glenn Barnett

    Recently Italian police recovered a stolen bust of Roman emperor named Lucius Verus (161 – 169) who jointly administered the empire with his more famous adopted brother Marcus Aurelius. The find focuses new light on the ancient world. Verus apparently did not like to sit for portraits and so few of his statues have survived from antiquity. But is this how he is known to history?
    Lucius Verus was best known for his invasion of Iraq, an event that brought disaster and untold suffering to the Roman world. Wars and revolutions have unintended consequences and Verus’ war was no exception.
    While his senior colleague Marcus remained in Rome to deal with domestic issues Verus was dispatched to Syria to deal with an aggressive Persian neighbor. Persia consisted of the modern nations of Iraq, Iran and western Afghanistan. The Roman invasion of Iraq at this time has echoes into our own day.
    In 164, Verus operating from a forward base at Antioch in Syria appointed General Avidius Cassius to lead an invasion of Iraq while he remained at a resort town on the Mediterranean coast. There he surrounded himself with actors, jesters, gladiators and other hangers-on, including a mistress named Panthea of Smyrna whose charms survive in the poetic gossip of Lucian and the Meditations of Aurelius (VIII 37).
    The fighting was left to the soldiers. An excellent tactician, Avidius crossed the Euphrates River in three places. He soon out maneuvered the Persians and captured the Iraqi towns of Nisibis, Singara, Anatha and Haditha.
    With his own brand of shock and awe he soon reached the Persian capital city of Ctesiphon (twelve miles south of Baghdad) which he took and sacked. Across the Tigris River from Ctesiphon stood the city of Seleucia which had been established by Alexander the Great four centuries earlier. It was peopled by a mostly Greek population who initially welcomed the Romans.
    Avidius’ men however were only interested in loot and the potential allied city of Seleucia was put to the torch. The modern concept of ‘winning hearts and minds’ never occurred to the Romans. The whole population of Iraq now resented the Roman intrusion.
    Worse the Romans grabbed everything within their reach. When they opened tombs to rob the grave goods however they altered the course of western history. Ancient writers attribute to these tomb raiders the contagion of the plague (perhaps smallpox) which was said to have been contracted from the looted graves.
    Not yet aware of the contagion that they carried, the Romans left Iraq with their loot and returned to Syria. Verus who had received news of their great victories returned to Rome to enjoy the uniquely Roman victory parade known as a ‘triumph’. The honors he gained by looting Iraq were celebrated while Verus, the soul of courtesy, shared the honors with his brother Marcus Aurelius who had remained at home.
    While Rome celebrated, the legionnaires were returning home infected with the contagious disease that they had contracted in Iraq. Within a decade the Roman world was decimated. Tens of thousands of people died of the Iraqi plague that swept through Europe leaving cities, towns and farms devastated and deserted.
    Vast tracts of fallow farm land acted as a beacon for foreign peoples beyond the empire’s borders. They coveted the land while the Romans needed farmers and tax payers to re-people the farms. The Germanic immigrants first crossed into Roman territory as workers and farmers in a time of need. They would eventually overwhelm the empire.
    Lucius Verus was not exempt from the disease that he unwittingly unleashed. He died in 169 as an unintended victim of his invasion of Iraq.
    Glenn Barnett is an instructor at Cerritos College in Norwalk. His forthcoming book is “THE PERSIAN WAR: The Roman Conflicts with Iraq and Iran”.

    Geoffrey Chaucer

    Zenobia, one time Palmyra's queen,
    As of her nobleness the Persians write
    In arms was both so worthy and so keen
    That none had greater fearlessness in fight
    Or boasted of a lineage more bright.
    Of kingly Persian blood was she the bearer:
    I say not she was fairest to the sight,
    And yet her figure could not have been fairer.

    From childhood ever to the woods she fled--
    No care on women's duties would she spend;
    And there the blood of many a hart she shed
    With broad and strong-winged arrows she would send;
    These beasts she tracked, and caught them in the end;
    When older, bears and lions would she kill,
    And leopards---with her bare hands she would rend
    Or in her arms would tame them to her will.

    She dared to seek a wild beast in its den,
    And range the hills by dark, and sleep all night
    Beneath a bush. And she would face young men---
    However strong they were, or swift and light-And wrestle them by force and very might;
    No creature was her match that walked or ran;
    She kept her maidenhood forever bright, And scorned to bind herself to any man.
    But friends at length contrived to have her marry

    One Odenathus, a prince of that same land,
    Though long for this event she made them tarry;
    And Odenathus, ye shall understand,
    Had fancies much like hers; but hand in hand
    When they were knit at last as man and wife,
    No greater joy could any two command,
    For each one loved the other as his life.

    Two sons by Odenathus did she bear,
    And taught them both in books and virtuous ways.
    But to our tale. I say that one so rare
    In honor, just and generous all her days,
    So wise, and courteous beyond all praise,
    So ardent in her wars yet careful too,
    So staunch in all the toils that battles raise,
    One could not find again the whole world through.

    The richness of her state may not be told,
    As to her vessels or the way she dressed: She was all clad in jewels and in gold;
    Yet when at times from war she won a rest
    She would not hunt, but rather showed a zest
    For learning sundry tongues; or else her days
    She gave to books, to study there how best
    to live her life in high and virtuous ways.
    And briefly all this story to relate,
    So valiant was her husband and was she
    That in the orient many a kingdom great
    They won, and many a city fair to see,
    That all had bowed beneath the majesty
    Of Rome, and strong of hand they held them fast,
    Nor ever could their foemen make them flee
    Till Odenathus' days were done at last.

    He that would of her many battles read
    Against great Sahpor king and many more,
    How year by year this process went, indeed,
    What title to each land she won by war;
    And later, of disaster that she bore,
    And how she was besieged and captured too--
    Let him my master Petrarch well explore,
    That wrote enough of this, I promise you.
    And after Odenathus died at length,
    She held the kingdom with a sturdy hand,
    And fought against her foes with such a strength
    That no king lived, nor prince, in all that land
    But he was glad to come at her command
    And get some grace of her---to make a stay;
    They made alliances and swore to stand
    At peace with her, and let her ride and play.

    Not Claudius, the Roman emperor,
    nor Gallienus, he that held the sway
    Before him, had such eagerness for war,
    Nor Arab nor Armenian in that day,
    Nor Syrian nor Egyptian, to essay
    Against her in the field to make a fight,
    Lest she in battle with her own hands slay
    Or with her armies scatter them in flight.

    In kingly habit went her sons, well-famed,
    Heirs to their father's kingdoms, one and all;
    Hermanno and Timoleus they were named,
    Or so the Persians write, as I recall.
    But always Fortune's honey hides some gall;
    Not long this mighty queen enjoyed success;
    Out of her kingdom Fortune made her fall
    Into misfortune, grief, and wretchedness.

    Aurelian, when he took the government
    Of Rome to hand, planned long and spared no pains
    For vengeance on this queen; and forth he went
    And with his legions sought her on her plains,
    And now to tell you briefly what remains,
    He made her flee, and captured her at last,
    And her and both her sons he put in chains,
    And won the land, and home to Rome he passed.

    Among the other trophies that he won
    Her chariot, wrought of splendid gems and gold,
    This mighty Roman, this Aurelian,
    Led his train for all men to behold.
    And foremost in his triumph as it rolled
    Walked she, her neck in gilded chains, and crowned
    To show the kingdoms she had once controlled,
    And all in jeweled clothing richly gowned.

    Ah, fortune! she that once held in honor
    And feared by emperors and kingly powers,
    Must let the crowding people stare upon her;
    And she that helmed in steel in other hours
    Waged bitter war and stormed strong towns and towers
    Must wear a woman's cap upon her head,
    And she that bore a scepter wreathed in flowers
    Must bear a distaff now, to earn her bread.


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