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Naples National Archeological Museum is the site of a journey into the Greek myths of metamorphosis

by Andrea Carli

“Amori Divini” exhibition at National Archaeological Museum of Naples through October 16th could be described as a journey into the world of Greek myth, characterized by myths of seduction and transformation.

Drawing inspiration from the past repertoire of Pompeii, the show tells the stories of mythical love affairs, in which at least one of the protagonists, whether human or god, changes form by turning into an animal, a plant, an object or an atmospheric phenomenon. When mortals and gods meet, they create a spark, sometimes of attraction, other times of repulsion.

Starting out from Greek literature and art, by way of Latin poet Ovid’s poem of changing forms “Le mefamorfosi”, down to more contemporary psychological interpretations, the myths of Danaë, Leda, Daphne, and Narcissus, and the extraordinarily complex story of Hermaphroditus have all become part of collective imagination.

The Neapolitan exhibition analyzes the ways in which Greek myths have been handed down and interpreted over the centuries. It includes about 80 works from Vesuvian sites and, more generally, from Magna Graecia, as well as from Italian and international museums (including the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg, the Musée du Louvre in Paris, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna).

Together with a number of ancient artifacts on mythological subjects – wall and vase paintings, marble and bronze sculptures, gems and precious ornaments – comparisons are made with a selection of works from more recent times focusing on each myth.

These include more than 20 paintings and sculptures, concentrating in particular on those from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. They illustrate the fundamental moments when these legends were transmitted to the modern world, showing their developments, modifications and continuation. Artists such as Baccio Bandinelli, Bartolomeo Ammannati, Nicolas Poussin, Giambattista Tiepolo and many others allow us to follow the fortunes of Greek legends until more recent times, but also to understand the role played by ancient images and literary sources in this tradition.

The first section of the exhibition shows the most famous cases of “stolen loves”, which are those of Danaë, Leda, Io, and Ganymede: here metamorphosis is the expedient used to conquer the loved person. Greek myths are illustrated on vase painting and figurines by stunning works of that same historical period: they introduce the stories and characters that appear in the following galleries. And when it is human beings changing forms, such as the young Io and Callisto, the transformation is imposed upon them by capricious and vindictive deities.

There are also cases of “negated loves”. These are the myths of Daphne and Apollo, Narcissus and Echo, and Hermaphroditus and Salmacis, which were virtually unknown in the archaic and classic Greek world. They were, however, dear to Ovid and, thanks in particular to this highly imaginative poet, they were adored by the Romans. The success of these stories, in literature and in art, stems from the potential they offer for exploring the adolescent soul and the transition to maturity.

Metamorphosis is simply the outcome of an otherwise insoluble conflict between the body in its prime, desirable and desired, and the spirit of the child, which is averse to the blandishments of love.

The exhibition is on show in the museum galleries next to the Salone della Meridiana, which are famed for their precious geometrical opera sectilia floors. These were put in place in the first half of the nineteenth century by adapting floors unearthed during eighteenth-century excavations in the Vesuvius area, in Capri and in other parts of the kingdom. It is known that the floor of the circular room, with triangular panels that increase in size from the centre towards the perimeter, come from the Belvedere of the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum.

The exhibition also includes an outstanding sample of MANN’s collection of vases, with works from Magna Graecia that will again be shown in the future rearrangement of this collection (2018). The scientific project, which has been entrusted to Enzo Lippolis, will also include bronzes, terracottas, goldwork and painted tomb panels.

(Amori Divini, National Archaeological Museum of Naples through October 16th)