MILAN — Homer alluded in “The Iliad” to the ancient belief that all life — animal, human and even the Olympian gods — were created by the water deity Oceanus and his consort Tethys. In the minds of the ancient Greeks and Romans, the entire natural world was imbued with the abiding presence of greater and lesser deities.
This idea of nature — at once visible and tangible, and filled with invisible forces that commanded and directed it — challenged the representational skills of artists in the Greco-Roman world. And their responses were central to the development of figurative art in the Western world.
How the ancients viewed and depicted nature is the subject of “Myth and Nature,” a wide-ranging survey of around 180 objects and art works spanning almost a millennium from the eighth century B.C. to the second century A.D. The exhibition, at the Palazzo Reale of Milan, is curated by Gemma Sena Chiesa and Angela Potrandolfo. It continues through Jan. 10 before traveling on to Naples next year.
The show opens with a life-size nude statue of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine, and a recently discovered sculpture of Triptolemus, whose mother Demeter — the Greek goddess of agriculture — sent him out to teach humans how to sow seeds.
An array of vases — many of them from Sicily and the south of Italy, colonized by the Greeks before the rise of Rome as a power — illustrate that images of gods personifying various aspects of nature were far more sophisticated than the artistic representation of the reality of the natural world.
But there was a burgeoning interest in more realistic renderings of nature, inspired especially by the sea, which played such a large part in the life of the Greeks and was the realm of the second great Greek epic, “The Odyssey.”
The oldest piece in this exhibition is a crater, used for mixing wine and water, from the eighth century B.C., found on the Italian island of Ischia. It is decorated with a scene of a shipwreck, which includes the corpse of a sailor already providing food for the fishes swimming around him. A sixth century B.C. kylix, or drinking bowl, from the city of Taranto is adorned with deft images of an octopus and dolphins. A remarkable series of plates from fourth century B.C. found in Puglia are embellished with attentively observed specimens of sea bream, perch, red mullet, sole, octopus and other marine creatures.
A comparatively large number of painted vases have survived from the first half of the first millennium B.C. because they were buried in graves. A very rare survival of a larger fresco painting with a marine setting is “Diver,” a work from the fifth century B.C., from a tomb in Paestum, north of Naples. On loan from the Archeological Museum in Naples, it shows a young man diving gracefully into the sea, almost certainly symbolic of his premature passage from life to death.
As a number of vases and reliefs dating from the sixth to the second century B.C. demonstrate, Dionysiac scenes were notable for lush adornments: climbing vines and pendulous bunches of grapes, often tended by the god’s loyal workforce of satyrs, hybrid creatures that bridged the human and animal worlds.
Pot painters’ skills were also encouraged by the need to distinguish other trees and plants sacred to particular deities: the oak, the attribute of Zeus; the laurel, of Apollo; the palm, of Apollo and Artemis; the olive tree, of Athena; the myrtle, of Aphrodite and Persephone, and so on.
A remarkable Attic red-figure vase with a scene of the murder of the Trojan king, Priam, during the sack of the city shows a palm tree in the sanctuary of Artemis seeming dramatically to drop its head, lamenting the slaughter.
The discovery of the royal tombs in Vergina in Macedonia in the late 1970s, including that of Philip II, father of Alexander the Great, brought to light a fresco of a hunting scene in a skillfully executed landscape setting, with subtle shadings and an assured grasp of perspective.
This explosion of artistic interest in the natural world during the Hellenistic period was later to influence Roman art, with the city of Alexandria a particularly important point of contact.
Weaving simple crowns of foliage was already an established practice, but during the Hellenistic era the finest goldsmiths applied their art to mimicking the wreaths with incredible delicacy in gold. Seven of these exquisite pieces are on display in Milan, four from southern Italy and three from Macedonia.
The increasing appreciation of nature gave rise to a new passion for gardens and, in due course, illusionistic painted gardens on the walls of villas. One of the most enchanting surviving examples of these are the detached frescoes from the House of the Golden Bracelet at Pompeii, now on loan in Milan. These scenes were not the work of famous artists, but the level of observation is impressive, with numerous tree, plant and bird species lovingly and convincingly reproduced.
As an addition to the exhibition, visitors can pass from the section displaying the House of the Golden Bracelet frescoes into the rear courtyard of the Palazzo Reale to stroll around a verdant recreation of a typical Roman viridarium, or garden. This project, based on a study of the frescoes, is the work of the Orticola di Lombardia, a horticultural society that dates back to 1865.
The final sections of the show are devoted to the flowering of Roman landscape and still-life painting. Some of the most celebrated surviving examples feature the “country houses, ports, landscapes, sacred woods, groves, hills, ponds, canals, rivers, shores” that Pliny the Elder described in such wall paintings.
A number of these exhibits relate ancient myths — the episode of Ulysses and the Laestrygonians, the slaughter of the children of Niobe, and Perseus’s rescue of Andromeda, for instance — but often these subjects form a relatively small part of the compositions, which were primarily intended to decorate interior living spaces.
Subgenres also emerged, such as riverside and maritime city views, including scenes of the Nile with pygmies struggling with crocodiles and hippos. There are also some beautiful monochrome paintings, including a finely painted ochre vignette of a rural temple and a deep blue vista of boats sailing on Lake Garda, from the so-called Villa of the Caves of Catullus at Sirmione.
Still-lifes also became popular, celebrating the bounty of nature in providing for the table. A dozen detached fresco panels from Pompeii and Herculaneum contain fish, fowl, eggs, grapes, apples, figs, dates and peaches (a Roman good-luck gift). The stripping of a layer of varnish, applied in the 18th century and since decayed, has restored to vibrancy an uncannily modern-looking ensemble of an elegant carafe of rosé with a golden loaf of bread.