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The brightly colored Narcissus painting recently recovered in Pompeii.

An Outstanding Narcissus Painting is Found in Pompeii… Would it Have Pleased Him?

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In mythology, Narcissus became so enraptured with his own handsome appearance the thought of never obtaining the beauty he saw reflected back at him led to his demise. His self-love story has inspired writers, musicians, poets and artists for at least 2000 years. It is no wonder the recent discovery of a Narcissus painting in the ruins of a Pompeii villa have excited archaeologists too.

Pompeii is famous for its ruins which were preserved by a lava flow in 79 AD. Among the treasures that were conserved are many remarkable mosaics and wall paintings. It could even be said that some of the best surviving examples of Roman art can be found in the buried city. And a recent find demonstrates that there are still more fantastic features hidden in the ruins. The Archaeological Park of Pompeii has announced an amazing discovery of a fresco of Narcissus. This is a masterpiece of Roman art and allows us to better understand the culture of Pompeii and Rome in the first century AD.

The discovery was made by archaeologists as they were working in a villa in the city that was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in 79 AD . Archaeologists who work on the site full-time have been excavating the house for some time. According to the Pompeii Archaeological Park Facebook Page, the painting emerged to light “during the consolidation works on the excavation fronts along Via Vesuvio.” They had already discovered a remarkable fresco “that portrays an erotic scene from the Greek myth of Leda and the Swan ” reports The Guardian. This discovery persuaded the experts to concentrate on the villa.

This fresco of Leda and the Swan persuaded the experts to concentrate on the villa.

This fresco of Leda and the Swan persuaded the experts to concentrate on the villa. ( Pompeii- Parco Archeologico )

The Masterpiece

The experts found a fresco of Narcissus in what is believed to be have been the atrium of the villa. This was a large room which was lit by natural light in which the master of the house (the Domus) would have received visitors. The painting was designed to impress visitors and to demonstrate the wealth and prestige of the household. Several luxurious artifacts were also found in the room with the Narcissus painting, including a bronze ornate bucket.

The painting is in a great state of preservation and the figure of Narcissus is very realistic. The mythological figure is convincingly portrayed and is shown looking at his reflection in the water beside a dog and a winged figure “who may be Eros, the Greek god of love,” reports the New York Times . It is similar in style to other frescoes found in other villas and houses in Pompeii and can be classed to the late Pompeiian style of painting.

Amazingly Well-Preserved Narcissus Painting

The BBC quotes the director of the site as saying it “probably dated to the last years of the colony, as indicated by the extraordinary preservation state of the colors.” Although the ceiling of the atrium had collapsed and damaged the fresco, a team of experts was able to collect fragments of the painting and piece it back together. It is now almost complete and looks as if it was only painted in recent years because of its vivid colors.

The Narcissus fresco is now almost complete and looks as if it was only painted in recent years because of its vivid colors

The Narcissus fresco is now almost complete and looks as if it was only painted in recent years because of its vivid colors. ( Pompeii- Parco Archeologico )

It is probable that the painting was designed to complement the images of Dionysus the god of wine in a nearby room to celebrate the joy of living and sensual pleasure. The entire house was one that was dedicated to sensuality and luxury. Pompeii was a pleasure-loving society and the myth of Narcissus was a popular one. LiveScience reports that Narcissus was a popular subject for artists and “his likeness is often portrayed in paintings found” in the city that was destroyed in 79 AD.

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1776.

Vesuvius in Eruption, with a View over the Islands in the Bay of Naples, Joseph Wright of Derby, 1776. ( Public Domain )

The Myth of Narcissus

Narcissus was the son of a river god and a nymph and he was an extraordinarily handsome hunter. According to the Greco- Romano version of the myth, popularized by the poet Ovid, a nymph fell in love with the handsome youth. However, he spurned her advances and she pined away until she became only literally the sound of an echo. The god of vengeance, Nemesis, witnessed the plight of Echo and decided to punish the vain youth.

The god of vengeance led Narcissus to a still mirror-like pool of water, where the youth saw his own image in a pool. He immediately fell in love with his own reflection. When he realized he was in love with only a reflection and that he could never possess the image in the pond, he committed suicide. The psychological concept of narcissism or excessive self-esteem is named after Narcissus.

‘Narcissus’ (1594-1596) by Caravaggio.

‘Narcissus’ (1594-1596) by Caravaggio. ( Public Domain )

The Pompeii Archaeological Park hopes to stabilize the villa . Once this is accomplished they would like to open at least a part of the house to visitors. There may be further masterpieces of art to be found in the villa and almost certainly there are more to be uncovered in Pompeii.

Top image: The brightly colored Narcissus painting recently recovered in Pompeii. Source: Pompeii- Parco Archeologico

By Ed Whelan

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