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Archaeological museum

The building that houses the museum was completed in the first years of the 17th century, making use of a structure erected some years earlier. It was inaugurated in 1615 as the "Palace of Royal Studies", the seat of the university of Naples. When the university moved elsewhere in 1777, King Ferdinand IV commissioned the architect Ferdinando Fuga to restore and adapt the building to accommodate the Bourbon Museum and Royal Library. It continued to undergo modifications, most notably the addition of a second storey on both flanks of the central edifice. At the turn of the century the sumptuous Farnese collections of pictures, books and antiquities were moved in from the Capodimonte museum and the various royal residences, to be followed by the finds from Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. Thus by 1816 the "Royal Bourbon Museum" could boast the combined riches of the Farnese collection and the Vesuvian antiquities. During the 19th century the museum continued to receive new material, both from private collections and from excavations, most of it from Campania or elsewhere in southern Italy. On the unification of Italy in 1860 it passed into state ownership and was renamed the "National Museum". It took advantage of the space created by the transfers first of the Library, in 1925, and then of the picture collection in 1957, which became the nucleus of the "National Museum and Galleries of Capodimonte". At this point the building contained only the rich collections of antiquities, and became the Archaeological Museum as we know it today. For some years the fabric has been undergoing extensive restoration work, now nearing completion, and once more a comprehensive reorganisation of the collections is in hand, with the dual purpose of documenting the role of private collectors in assembling our archaeological patrimony and illustrating the various finds in their specific contexts.  


This collection comprises portions of floor decorations and some wall decorations dating from the two centuries before Christ and up to 79 A.D., almost all of them from Pompeii, Herculaneum and Stabiae. The majority are emblèmata, scenes with figures often derived from Greek paintings. On display are two scenes from the "new style comedy", signed by Dioskourides of Samos, and the rich array of mosaics from the House of the Faun in Pompeii, which includes the famous scene from a battle between Alexander the Great and the Persians under Darius. Also of particular interest are the three sectilia, rare examples of this technique of inlaying different coloured marbles in a slate base to depict figures.


The Cabinet of Obscene Objects was created in 1817 to bring together about a hundred miscellaneous items which were only to be viewed by important visitors of the male sex on obtaining the relevant authorisation from the Ministry. In the prurient climate of restoration in the 1850s it was closed to viewing, but following the unification of Italy it was reopened and the collection was published by Giuseppe Fiorelli in 1866. After the turn of the century it was dispersed, but it is now being reconstituted and enlarged with some two hundred other items. When it reopens it will be another example of the Royal Bourbon Museum as it was originally constituted.


The frescoes exhibited in these rooms are mainly portions of painted wall plaster which, from the mid-18th century onwards and even in a few instances during this century, were removed from the buildings buried by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD. Although coming from a small provincial town and representing the production of less than two centuries (up to 79 AD), the collection is nonetheless an exceptional record of the art of decorative painting in Roman times. It goes some way to filling the gap left by the almost total disappearance of Greek painting, which was the principal (although not the only) source for the contents and style of Roman art. These fragments provide a compendium of such subject matter: mythological and literary themes, still lifes and landscapes, portraits, scenes of daily life and religious ceremonies related to the household gods. Fewer examples have survived of the isolated figures, details of ornamentation and architectural motifs which formed decorative schemes around the set-pieces.


In the first room (A) you can see silverware, most of it from houses in Pompei and Herculaneum. It includes the remarkable assortment of silver artefacts found in the House of Menander in Pompeii, unique for their variety and the superlative quality of the workmanship. The next room (B) displays a selection of objects made from ivory and bone, again found mainly in Pompei and Herculaneum. Most of them were either ornamental or in everyday use, perhaps in games and pastimes - like the dice and knucklebones - or else for women's toiletry. Other objects in glazed terracotta, such as oil lamps, crockery and ornamental ware, are made in Egypt, and belonged to Vesuvian householders. The glass collection (C) also comes mainly from the Vesuvian sites, but includes pieces from the Farnese collection. Three particularly precious artefacts made with the glass cameo technique were discovered in Pompeii: two panels portraying Dionysiac scenes and the famous "Blue Vase".


The great hall was part of the original 17th century building, and when it was decided to turn this into a museum, the hall was designated to hold the Royal Bourbon Library. It was restored accordingly, and in 1781 Pietro Bardellino covered the ceiling with a fresco representing Virtue crowning Ferdinando and Maria Carolina. The walls were decorated with eighteen canvases by Giovan Evangelista Draghi showing the exploits of Alessandro Farnese (1545-1592) in the Low Countries. To these have recently been added paintings of the Neapolitan school from the first half of the 19th century depicting historical and mythological subjects. The sun-dial in the floor dates from the last decade of the 18th century, when there were plans to install an astronomical observatory in the building, and is remarkable for the high artistic quality of the signs of the zodiac.


Set out on two levels, this section presents the civilizations which flourished in the Bay of Naples and its hinterland up to the period of Greek colonization (8th century BC) on the lower level and, in the rooms upstairs, material from various places further afield, exhibited in chronological order from the Paleolithic Era to the Recent Bronze Age.


On completion this section will illustrate the profound influence of Greek culture in the Bay of Naples. This spanned at least ten centuries, from the settlement of Pithekoussai on Ischia in the 8th century BC to the sophisticated Hellenistic culture that characterised the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum, producing the two "Greek" cities of Cumae and Neapolis and continuing to flourish throughout the Roman period and beyond. At present the visitor may see the beginnings of this influence, in the rooms dedicated to Ischia (125-124) which include the reconstruction of a Greek house at Punta Chiarito dating from the 8th-7th century BC, and its apogee in the rooms featuring the Villa of the Papyri (114-117). Here are displayed specimens of the remarkable finds that came to light between 1750 and 1765: statues in bronze and marble, mostly Roman copies of Greek originals, and some 2000 papyrus scrolls from the villa's well-endowed library. In the near future the two intermediate phases of this important period will be illustrated in rooms dedicated to Cumae (123-121), with vases and other finds collected in the 19th century by the Count of Syracuse and Emilio Stevens, and the original Greek site of Naples itself, Parthenope and its successor Neapolis (120-118).


In the 1700s and 1800s the Museum received a wealth of material from archaeological sites in southern Italy on the territory of what had been Magna Graecia. At the same time several private collections were purchased - above all that of the Santangelo family - which were particularly rich in objects belonging to the "Western Greeks". These rooms offer a broad cross-section of items - vases, terracotta statues, grave paintings, gold ornaments, coins, bronze and glass ware - to illustrate the history and culture of a number of sites such as Paestum, Metaponto, Locri, Ruvo and Canosa in the regions of Campania, Puglia, Basilicata and Calabria.


Once the Magna Graecia section has moved into its definitive location, these rooms will be dedicated to the Etruscan and Italic peoples in Campania and the various cultural influences - notably Greek - to be found in their settlements, above all in the hinterland to the north and east of Naples in the sites of Nola, Santa Maria Capua Vetere, Calvi, Sant'Agata dei Goti, Alife and Teano. The visitor will be able to see vases, bronze and terracotta statues, gold ornaments and other artefacts belonging to grave goods excavated in the 1700s and 1800s and subsequently purchased from private collectors, as well as finds from excavations carried out since 1900.


These rooms show the wall paintings removed from the temple of Isis in Pompeii in the years 1764-66. Their style is typical of the Hellenistic-Roman artistic tradition, but they include many elements of the cult of Isis and Nile valley culture. Also on display are all the artefacts found in the temple: sculptures in marble, bronze and terracotta, inscriptions and a variety of objects used during worship.


The large model made of wood, cork and paper seen in the centre of the room was conceived by Giuseppe Fiorelli and constructed in various stages from 1861 onwards, and stands as a precious testimony to 19th century scholarship. It is outstanding for its minute attention to detail, and in some cases it represents the only record we have of paintings and mosaics that were subsequently destroyed. On the wall there is a model illustrating the state of the excavations at Pompeii in 1978.


In this room you can see a number of objects found in the Vesuvian towns testifying to the locals' passion for attending shows in the arena. They include some fine specimens of gladiators' armour worn during parades and ceremonies, and the famous fresco depicting the brawl that broke out between citizens of Pompeii and the neighbouring Nuceria during an event in the amphitheatre in Pompeii in 59 AD. Also on view here are various objects from bathing establishments.


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