One of our trusted tour experts, Cathie Draycott, has recently visited the “Life and Death – Pompeii and Herculaneum” exhibition at London’s British Museum, which is still open until September 29th, 2013. Clearly, she was impressed. Here’s what she’s written about it.
One hears and reads a lot about the death of Pompeii, the ancient town which along with several others in the Bay of Naples, including Herculaneum, was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Titus. The towns were so utterly and shockingly buried that the Roman poet Statius said:
“In the future, when crops grow again and this devastated wilderness blooms once more, will people believe that towns, people and estates are all buried beneath the soil?”
Millennia later, during the earliest days of archaeology in the 18th century – and indeed encouraging its development – these towns buried under over 20 metres of volcanic debris were finally rediscovered, and the very tragedy that wiped out their lives in one day has made them a keystone for understanding life in Roman towns.
Those of you travelling through London in September will be able to catch the final days of an exhibition which brings this life into sharp focus. The British Museum’s Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which closes in late September, has rightly been acclaimed for its truly astonishing collection of materials, from huge wall paintings to the more humble and tiny personal items, and its thoughtful design that reconstructs original living contexts in a way few exhibitions manage.The exhibition layout follows the scheme of a Pompeiian house – specifically the House of the Tragic Poet, named, as many of the houses there, after its most celebrated contents, in this case a mosaic depicting a theatre scene in one of the central rooms and a fresco referring to the play Iphigenia in Aulis by the Greek dramatist Euripides. The mosaic and fresco are not in fact on display in the exhibition, but this is in no way a disappointment, as its success in gathering together so many items, including a great many that are not commonly represented in publications on Pompeii and handbooks of Roman Art, outshines such single highlights.
The exhibition opens with street life outside the house. Regarding its layout, this section is not quite as evocative as what follows , but it does much to set the scene by using sounds of metal- and stone-working, and the hum of traders and townsfolk. Immediately, my imagination was stimulated by a range of lesser-seen items, such as an inscription which marked off house properties (presumably between two warring owners) and a painting of a Phoenix from the exterior of a taverna (one imagines pub signs which might also function as good luck talismans). Perhaps most charming is a set of small wall paintings from within a tavern, which showed patrons engaging in increasingly wayward behaviours, reminding me of both Hogarth’s paintings of degeneracy in 18th century England (incidentally viewable in the Sir John Soane Museum, a wonderful house museum not far from the British Museum itself) and – for those who are stopping through Istanbul – caricatures of Istanbul neighbourhood ‘types’ on the wall of the Café Smyrna, itself a popular ‘taverna’ in the trendy Çihangir district near Taksim.
One then proceeds into the house proper and through several rooms: the atrium, where a pool would collect rainwater, recreated here with the use of lighting to simulate reflections of the water in the pool, the tablinum (a multifunctional room sometimes used as a kind of office), dining rooms, bedrooms and kitchens. Here, one learns that – rather horrifyingly (for us) – the latrine was often set in the latter, explaining the concentration of shrines to protective household gods in these areas.
Well-known items on display include the famous and breathtaking ‘garden paintings’ which decorated the entire walls of a dining room of one rich house – it is a huge privilege to see these at the British Museum, as they were shipped from the National Archaeological Museum at Naples especially for the exhibition. This and a mosaic of sea life from another house illustrate the interest in identifying specific species of animals and plants in such domestic artworks. Other paintings, both portraits and still lives, indicate the common pursuit of knowledge and literacy on the part of homeowners at Pompeii, tradesmen and aristocrats alike. The Pompeii frescos are of massive importance in art history, as they are one of the very few accessible representations of Graeco-Roman painting, then (as for most of history) considered the highest form of art but with none of the major original works surviving.
Another, better-known, item is a relief depicting an earthquake (presumably the one that preceded the eruption of Vesuvius by some 17 years), once displayed in a household shrine. The less well-known and less ‘photogenic’ items, however, are perhaps even more fascinating and certainly do much to capture the more earthy aspects of day-to-day life in these houses. The exhibition does a particularly good job of showing graffiti often scratched onto the painted walls by both adults and children. Some show images of battling gladiators and animals, perhaps bringing memories of a day out back home, others comment on the paintings themselves. In the ‘bedroom’, one woman complained in writing about Venus, who she obviously held responsible for her presumably unhappy love life.
The exhibition concludes with the very poignant casts of the dead, whose bodies were encased, along with their possessions, in the ash which rained down on their towns. As they went the way of all flesh, what the archaeologists encounter today are hollows in the compacted ashes, literal negative imprints of the long-decayed bodies. On discovery, those hollows are filled with plaster, providing a statue-like representation of the dead and dying. The events of the eruption were described in a first-hand account by the Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who was at home across the bay and whose uncle, the encyclopaedian Pliny the Elder died trying to rescue people from Pompeii:
“Though it was the first hour of the day, the light appeared to us still faint and uncertain. And though we were in an open place, it was narrow, and the buildings around us were so unsettled that the collapse of walls seemed a certainty. We decided to get out of town to escape this menace. The panic-stricken crowds followed us, in response to that instinct of fear which causes people to follow where others lead. In a long close tide they harassed and jostled us. When we were clear of the houses, we stopped, as we encountered fresh prodigies and terrors. Though our carts were on level ground, they were tossed about in every direction, and even when weighted with stones could not be kept steady. The sea appeared to have shrunk, as if withdrawn by the tremors of the earth. In any event, the shore had widened, and many sea creatures were beached on the sand. In the other direction loomed a horrible black cloud ripped by sudden bursts of fire, writhing snakelike and revealing sudden flashes larger than lightning… Once more, darkness and ashes, thick and heavy. From time to time we had to get up and shake them off for fear of being actually buried and crushed under their weight.”
The exhibition represents a unique opportunity to see so much which sheds light on these lost towns in one place, and will provide an valuable complement for anyone travelling on to see the actual sites in Italy, or indeed the remains of other ancient towns and houses in the Mediterranean, including Turkey and Greece. Advance tickets are sold out, but they are available on the day (entailing a bit of queuing). It’s well worth the wait to gain a unique insight into the Last Days of Pompeii and share in this remarkable experience of life and death in an ancient city.
The destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum is just one example of how events that were horrific and tragic for those alive at the time, by preserving a window into a particular moment of history, can turn out as huge contributors to our understanding of the past, and as major enhancements to our aesthetic enjoyment of human creativity. Of course, you should try to see the London exhibit while it lasts. Beyond that, you can see items and artworks from Pompeii in the museum at Naples, and visit the site itself on our Cruise of the Amalfi Coast!
(We would like to express our gratitude to the British Museum for providing the images illustrating this post)