Review: Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Review: Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Pomp 1Today is the 260th birthday of the British Museum, which I marked by being in it.

Specifically, we were there for 2013’s blockbuster show, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum.

It is… stunning. Astonishing.

Neil MacGregor is now the undisputed master at curating objects in such a way that they evoke the space and time they come down to us from.

With the Hajj it was a circumambulation of the Kaaba. With Shakespeare: Staging The World it was an Elizabethan mappa mundi.

Both are only lead-ups to this. Now he has the confidence to paint with more ambitious strokes. Life and Death begins in a Pompeiian street, with taverns and drains and dogs… and then moves into an evoked home of a wealthy Pompeiian.

It’s wonderful. Here’s Alaistair Sooke walking around it. Watch in HD, please.

A lot of people have already said a lot of things about this exhibit out there, so instead of rehashing, I’m going to quote from a number of London arts journalists and offer up a few of the better images out there. The exhibit is too intricate to suit a single viewpoint, anyway.

The presentation is systematic and sober-suited almost until the end. And then, just as the exhibition is drawing to a close, comes a heightened sense of emotional drama. We turn a corner and see her, in a low-lit area on her own, flung down onto her face, helplessly sprawled in death, the Resin Lady, so called because the void of the body left in ash was filled with clear epoxy resin. This woman died in the basement of a villa near Pompeii. Beside her is displayed her jewellery: a plain gold armlet, a gold ring with its gem stone, the silver pin that she would have worn in her hair.

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A visitor stands before a kitchen shrine. See the Lares above the snakes? Awesome.

A little way away is an entire family that died together, huddled in an alcove under the stairs of a house. A child is on its mother’s lap. Mother and father appear to be falling backwards, reeling from the tremendous blast of heat. A child lies in the boxer pose – which means that its tendons would have contracted because of the searing temperatures. [More.]

As you might expect from wealthy Romans, there are penises everywhere. Here’s Pan banging a goat. You can imagine the reaction when this was uncovered in the 18th century. Even today, visitors were as sheepish as school children. (That would have been some awesome word play if Pan were banging a sheep.)

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Now let’s hear from the man at the top of the BM, himself:

Neil MacGregor, director of the British Museum said “This will be a major exhibition for the British Museum in 2013, made possible through collaboration with the Archaeological Superintendency of Naples and Pompeii which has meant extremely generous loans of precious objects from their collections, some that have never travelled before.” [More.]

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Visitors move from the evoked street into this atrium. The dog mosaic is absolutely exquisite.

Can’t argue with this assessment from the Guardian about the level of emotion this exhibit conveys. Neil MacGregor is a god. An absolute god. Museum curation is the new rock and roll.

I never witnessed the legendary Tutankhamun exhibition at the British Museum in 1972, but I have seen every exhibition there since Neil MacGregor became director in 2002 and this is the most moving by far. It is also the most timely. There have been too many news stories recently about ancient Roman buildings in Pompeii falling into ruin (after they were miraculously preserved). This majestic event will hopefully remind the world that Pompeii is not some tourist attraction to treat shabbily but the world’s most revelatory survival of the human past. [More.]

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We’ve all been there, Hercules. Sometimes I’m still there. It pleases me to see that the Romans reboot their heroes just like we do.

It is in the pots and pans, the jewels and the elegant furniture, the dirty jokes and the outbursts of democratic solidarity, that the spirit of ancient Rome can be found. No place illustrates them like Pompeii. Our knowledge of Roman civilisation would be “hugely” diminished if Vesuvius had kept its cool, says Roberts.

“Of course we would have the theatre at Orange, the Colosseum, the numerous temples. But we wouldn’t have the streets and streets of houses and shops, the gardens, the cupboards full of pots and trinkets. That is what Pompeii and Herculaneum have given us. All the really ordinary stuff. Exceptional, but ordinary.” [More.]

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A piece of the garden mural.

When the volcano destroyed and preserved these communities, the Roman empire was omnipotent. Legions marched on straight roads from Egypt to Britannia. Everywhere, they brought running water, heating, literacy. The first words ever written down in Britain were in Latin.

That might sound soft on a slave-owning imperial power. But you can’t not love the Romans after seeing this exhibition. They are such an intimate mirror of ourselves. The reason Pompeii and Herculaneum fascinate is not just the preservation of an entire world in a moment of mass extinction, but the uncanny way that world reflects our own. Through a combination of slavery and hydraulic engineering, free Romans lived like modern people, surrounded by consumer goods and ingenious comforts. [More.]

Basically, wealthy Romans were the original hipsters. Not only did they put birds on everything, but their lives are essentially playing board games in taverns, buying hyperlocally, shopping at delis, obsessing over dogs, baking annoying things, focusing on their own terrible music, and grooming themselves. Fantastic.

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Their attitude to the unseen world is also frankly inspiring. When you visit Rome, you see the monumental architecture of state religion. It’s impressive, sure. But the centrality of the Lares (and ancestors) in daily Roman life speaks to a personal connection to the divine within a landscape of wider, macropolitical deities. Life and Death includes an exquisite, tiny, enthroned Jupiter that formed part of a personal shrine that is worlds away from the feeling you get visiting sites in the capital.

I also like -and consider psychologically healthier than debasing yourself with mere worship- that they would tangle with the gods if need be. There’s a lovely painting by a woman calling Venus a snake and telling other women to beware because She will poison their men. It’s a fairly bold reaction to what I presume is adultery. (She could potentially be mourning his death from a sexually transmitted disease, but that’s not what it felt like.)

Vesuvius, it was agreed, was dormant – barring the odd tremor or two. Not so. Pliny the Younger described the truth of the matter a couple of decades after the tragedy: “You could hear the shrieks of the women, the wailing of infants, and the shouting of men.” [More.]

The objects -like the heartbreaking little crib below- paint a world that is so similar to ours that I couldn’t help thinking about Philip K Dick’s two week vision that he described in his Exegesis. He had such vivid memories of being a secret Christian in 70AD in the Roman Empire that he couldn’t tell whether they were ‘just’ memories or whether the modern world was an illusory overlay and he really was living in the days of the empire. (Concurrently explored in his fiction, of course.)

Given the state of our archonic digital overlay, there’s no reason to say this isn’t literally true. Rich or poor, the arc of our lives is more or less identical to the Romans. It’s just that today we have facebook so the NSA can watch your every move and decide whether or not to use your smart phone as a clandestine recording device -even when not in use.

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Which is why the final part of the exhibition, to do with the eruption and death, is probably so moving.

By the time the pyroclastic cloud reached Pompeii, which was nearly four times the size of Herculaneum, it had cooled to about 300C. That was not hot enough to vaporise humans, so bodies remained where they fell, encased in ash, which compacted into stone. Over the years, water and air reached them, rotting the remains, leaving perfectly preserved spaces — voids — where the bodies had been.

In the 1860s, an Italian archeologist named Giuseppe Fiorelli devised a method of filling these spaces with plaster and created, in some cases, extraordinarily detailed moulds of the victims. Whole families were reborn, mothers with children clinging to them in their last moments — and, in one case, even a guard dog chained to a post, coiled in fear. “I’ve been looking at these bodies for 30 years and I can’t look at them without my eyes pricking with tears,” says the historian and presenter Bettany Hughes. “It’s a remarkable thing to have encapsulated that moment of passing. There’s almost a beauty to them, and yet it’s a terrible, savage beauty, because you know what they’ve gone through. It triggers something very fundamental about what it is to be human, to be moved by those people, even though we’re separated by 2,000 years.” [More.]

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Throughout the show there has been spasmodic circumambient sound: the clop of horses, excited street chatter. Not so here, at the exhibition’s most poignant moment. Here we are greeted by nothing but a deafening silence. Which is just as it should be.” [More.]

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Again, astonishing. We walk out through the Great Court and down Museum Street, past all the revelers spilling out of the pubs into the perfect London summer evening. I think myself fortunate to live somewhere that not only offers easy access to once-in-a-generation exhibitions, but is also blessedly free of volcanoes.

And, because it’s the weekend, here’s a complete documentary about a city for which the latter, at least, wasn’t the case:


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  1. 5
    Tom R

    “Basically, wealthy Romans were the original hipsters. Not only did they put birds on everything, but their lives are essentially playing board games in taverns, buying hyperlocally, shopping at delis, obsessing over dogs, baking annoying things, focusing on their own terrible music, and grooming themselves.”

    This quote made me laugh so loud that I scared my coworkers.

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