Department of Art and Art History Art History

Q+A with Geo-Archeologist Giovanni di Maio

Wed. October 12, 2016

excavation site at Oplontis
The luxury villa, with its extensive gardens, water features, entertainment rooms, and baths, was a showy extension of an elite Roman’s political power and social clout. The Oplontis Project, housed in the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas, has as its goal the excavation and the multidisciplinary study of Villa A (“of Poppaaea”) and Villa B (“of Lucius Crassius Tertius”) at Torre Annanziata, near Pompeii. Under the direction of John R. Clarke and Michael L. Thomas of the University of Texas at Austin and in collaboration with the Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei, an international team of scholars and experts, including geo-archaeologist Giovanni di Maio, is working to publish a definitive studies of all aspects of these sites.
Di Maio recently visited the Department of Art and Art History to give a lecture on the excavation sites of Pompeii, Oplontis and Positano. We sat down with him to learn more about his work and collaboration with the Center for the Study of Ancient Italy

Why do you take into consideration the change of landscape? What insights does it lend?

It is so intriguing to see the evolution of the land, because everything changes. Nothing stays the same; it is interesting to see how things like human activity affect the land. 

Why do you think the secondary phenomena of the eruption have been studied so little?

Well, you work on the things that you can find; that’s the nature of archaeology. And we tend not to focus on the smaller stuff. For example, people tend to take more interest in the paintings and frescos than on the imprints or pottery that is found. However, it’s the sum total of the “smaller stuff” that sometimes creates the significant insights into what we know about the lives of those at Pompeii, Oplontis and Positano.

What are the roles of art historians at the excavation site?

Any kind of visual representation has a context. Much of what art historians do is make connections and interpretations, creating a narrative so that we can understand the purpose or function of what we have found. For example, the art historians worked on fragments of frescoes left in storage after the initial reconstruction of Villa A. By studying these fragments and putting them into the original perspective schemes they were able to recover the beautiful trompe l’oeil architectural decorations of two big rooms. These are exhibited in Leisure and Luxury in the Age of Nero: The Villas of Oplontis near Pompeii, currently at the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University.

Did any ethical issues come up during the excavations?

This region of Italy has a long and rich history. For many in the region and in Italy, these excavations remind them that it was once a city; that once there was life, but it was suddenly stolen by a natural disaster. This changes the experience of seeing the casts of the human beings or the dog exhibited at Pompeii. The city acts as a living museum. It’s reasonable and proper to recognize and remember that they are remnants of lives lived and that they tell a story.

How are sciences, like geology, becoming an essential part of collaborative humanities?

Geology is fundamental to archaeology. There are problems with depth that must be considered, and geology becomes important when making considerations for the stability of buildings. You want to avoid knocking down or collapsing buildings. But there are also other considerations and insights to be made. We had paleobotanists look at the gardens at the villas, and their work showed that the gardens had been abandoned before the eruption. We have done residue analysis on 1300 lime jars that revealed many were actually later used to carry wine. Analysis of carbonized wood showed that they were growing very tall pines. Stone analysis revealed what quarries the building stones came from, which also signified the huge reach and wealth of Oplontis. Pigment analysis finds the composition of materials, so we can date objects. So science is fundamental in every part of archaeology, without it, we could not understand Oplontis as well as we do now.

Khristaan Villela Appointed Director of Santa Fe Museum

Wed. October 12, 2016

Khristaan D. Villela
Khristaan D. Villela (M.A. in Art History, 1993; PhD in Art History, 2001) has been appointed Director of the Museum of International Folk Art in Santa Fe, N.M. Villela came to the museum from the Santa Fe University of Art and Design (SFUAD), where he was Professor of Art History and Scholar in Residence. 
Villela has curated exhibitions at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, the Miho Museum in Kyoto, Japan, and the New Mexico History Museum. Most recently, he was consulting curator for Miguel Covarrubias: Drawing a Cosmopolitan Line at the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum, Santa Fe.  Prior to his appointment at SFUAD, Villela was Eugene V. Thaw Professor of Art History at the College of Santa Fe and was the founding director of the Thaw Art History Center. He writes frequently for publications including New Mexico Magazine, El Palacio, ARTNews, Adobe Airstream, and he has a column in the Santa Fe New Mexican Pasatiempo section. He is the author of Ancient Civilizations of the Americas: Man, Nature, and Spirit in Pre-Columbian Art (Miho Museum, 2011); The Aztec Calendar Stone (with Mary Miller, Getty Publications, 2010); and Contemporary Mexican Architecture and Design (with Ellen Bradbury Reid and Logan Wagner, Gibbs Smith Publications, 2002). He is working on a book on the contributions of the Mexican artist, collector and curator Miguel Covarrubias to Pre-Columbian studies in US and Mexico in the mid-twentieth century. Another book project is the first publication of an album of 1860s photographs, the Souvenir of New Mexico, assembled by a US Army officer in New Mexico Territory. The album includes what may be the first photos of the Navajo, as well as important images of the Navajo captivity at Fort Sumner, NM.
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