Painting for Eternity

The Tombs of Paestum

27 June to 28 September 2008

Poster of the exhibition “Painting for Eternity. The Tombs of Paestum”

Poster of the exhibition “Painting for Eternity. The Tombs of Paestum”

Design: Steenbrink Vormgeving, Berlin

With its three large Doric temples, Paestum became a well-known site early on thanks to engravings by Piranesi (1777/78) and Goethe’s impressive descriptions in his Italienische Reise (1787). However, many people are unaware that Paestum contains one of the greatest treasure troves of ancient fresco paintings: During excavations in the 1960s, around 200 richly painted tombs from the Lucanian period (4th century B.C.) were discovered. The Martin-Gropius-Bau dedicates an exhibition to these rare examples of ancient tomb art. Around 45 painted tomb slabs of the Museo Archeologico Nazionale di Paestum will be shown at the exhibition in Berlin, including seven complete tombs.

The extremely heavy slabs will be reassembled for the exhibition into three-dimensional tombs for the first time since their discovery, allowing the paintings to be seen in their original context. Visitors have the unique opportunity to look into the tombs and receive a sense of their composition and size. Simultaneously, the life of a long-vanished culture unfolds, depicting battle scenes, sports events and competitions as well as the burial rites of the Lucani, an Italian tribe which lived in the former Greek colony of Paestum around 400 B.C.. Exhibiting the tombs in their entirety gives insight into the way the paintings were developed: Following the death, the slabs, plastered in limestone, were lowered into the earth and painted by the artists in the narrow tomb cavity within just a few hours. The burial probably took place on the same day and the tombs were then sealed. Thus the pictures in the tombs were removed from the sight of the living, destined to accompany the deceased in the afterlife.

The urgency with which the burial chambers were painted also explains the quick, confident brush strokes and the sketch-like qualities of the paintings, catching viewers by surprise both in their animation and their narrative variety. One can see mounted men returning home to be greeted by women with a welcoming drink, as well as the laying out of the body surrounded by mourners, musicians and scenes of sacrifice. Observed by judges, the funeral games depicted can be violent and even bloody, portraying javelin competitions, chariot races around a victory column or boxing matches held to the sound of flutes. Genre-like scenes such as stag and panther hunts are also pictured. In addition to mythical beasts such as sphinxes and griffins, mythical figures of water nymphs riding seahorses appear – a reference to the isle of the blessed. The rooster as a symbol of fertility and pomegranates as symbols of eternal life give insight into the Lucani’s world of imagery.

From a scientific point of view, these tomb frescos are highly unusual: The Greek paintings of the 4th century B.C., which served as models for the artists of Paestum no longer exist, so that here we are given a rare insight into the development of the visual arts of that time. As a result, Paestum is not solely a site of famous Greek temples but also the location of the most comprehensive collection of ancient painting to be found to date.

In addition to the decorative paintings in the burial chambers, the dead were also given numerous burial objects to see them on their way. Valuable vases, armaments and other objects which have been found in the respective tombs complement the exhibition and complete our insight into the civilization, life and death of a long vanished age. Visitors to the exhibition enter a necropolis that gives impressive evidence for how the Lucani honored their dead.

The second part of the exhibition is dedicated to depictions of the ancient temples of Paestum in the visual arts between 1750 and 1850. A concentrated selection of around 55 paintings, etchings, drawings, watercolors and architectural treatises depict the many-faceted views of Paestum, which has become a part of Europe’s cultural heritage since the mid 18th century. The spectrum stretches from the classical vedute of Antonio Joli to the fascinating etchings of Giovanni Battista Piranesi, including his important preparatory drawings, a selection that will be seen for the first time in Germany. It incorporates impressions recorded by the German-Roman Jakob Philipp Hackert; Goethe’s artistic mentor, Christoph Heinrich Kniep and the French Romantic Hubert Robert in their paintings, followed by the precise architectural surveys published by Friedrich von Gärtner, Leo von Klenze, Thomas Major and Saint-Non in their travel journals, published etchings and architectural treatises.

The exhibition concept was developed by guest curator Prof. Dr. Bernard Andreae, former Director of the German Archeological Institute in Rome, who also curated the Cleopatra and the Ceasars exhibition in 2006 and the successful 2004 Etruscan exhibition at the Bucerius Kunst Forum. Dr. des. Nina Simone Schepkowski, research assistant at the Bucerius Kunst Forum, designed the second half of the exhibition dealing with the historical reception during the 18th and 19th centuries of the ancient temples of Paestum in the visual arts.

Organizer: Berliner Festspiele. An exhibition of the Bucerius Kunst Forum, Hamburg. Facilitated in Berlin by the Capital City Cultural Fund.
Patronage: Giorgio Napolitano, President of the Republic of Italy, Dr. Norbert Lammert, President of the German Bundestag
Curators: Prof. Dr. Bernard Andreae, Rome with Nina Simone Schepkowkski, Hamburg
Venues: Hamburg: Bucerius Kunst Forum, Berlin: Martin-Gropius-Bau