National Lecture Program

AIA Lecturer: Jessica Powers

Affiliation: San Antonio Museum of Art

Jessica Powers is the Gilbert M. Denman, Jr., Curator of Art of the Ancient Mediterranean World at the San Antonio Museum of Art. She holds degrees from Princeton University and the University of Michigan (Ph.D.). A specialist in Roman art, she has published on sculptures and wall paintings from Pompeii and on Roman art in museums. She curated the exhibition Antinous, the Emperor’s Beloved: Investigating a Roman Portrait (2017), and she is currently planning a major exhibition on landscapes in Roman art.


Recent years have seen increasing interest in the histories of museum collections of archaeological material in the United States. Both the formation of these collections and the provenance (or modern ownership histories) of individual objects have drawn attention, from scholars and the public alike. While some American museums have undertaken Nazi-era provenance research on works of European art since the 1990s, similar investigations of ancient art collections are a more recent development. In this lecture I discuss the process of exploring the provenance of the San Antonio Museum of Art’s ancient Mediterranean collection and share recent results of this ongoing project. This behind-the-scenes look at the museum introduces the challenges and opportunities of provenance research and discusses various methods for approaching this work. A combination of archival research, close examination of the objects and collaboration with colleagues across disciplines has led to surprising discoveries about the collection’s past. I conclude with a look at the museum’s efforts to make these outcomes broadly accessible to the public.


Short bibliography and/or website on lecture topic:

J. N. Hopkins, S. K. Costello and P. R. Davis, eds., Object Biographies: Collaborative Approaches to Ancient Mediterranean Art (Houston: The Menil Collection, 2021).

Destroyed by the eruption of Mt. Vesuvius in 79 CE, Pompeii remains one of the world’s most celebrated archaeological sites for the record it preserves of urban life under the Roman Empire. Despite Pompeii’s modern fame, marble sculptures found in the city’s houses and public buildings have received relatively little attention from scholars. This lecture explores the archaeological practices and documentation that, over more than two centuries of excavation, have complicated the study of sculptures and other moveable finds from the site. Taking as case studies statuettes and reliefs from two houses and a tavern in Pompeii and the nearby seaside villa at Oplontis, I draw on archival material and early published reports to reconnect these works with their ancient contexts. This reinterpretation sheds new light on the sculpture habit in Pompeii, on the value these works held for their owners, and on the frequent practice of reusing or recycling carved marble.

[This lecture includes discussion of sculptures with explicit depictions of sexual activity that may not be suitable for some audiences.]

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