Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum
28 March – 29 September 2013
It is the daily life of Pompeii and its near neighbour Herculaneum before the disaster that is the subject of the British Museum’s latest exhibition.
In fact, the British Museum in London is hosting its first ever exhibition on the Roman cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum sponsored by Goldman Sachs.
Titled “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum“, with a unique focus to give a taste of the everyday life of the people in Pompeii, the exhibition will display 450 artifacts on loan from the Superintendence of Naples, until the end of September 2013, of whom some had never left Naples and which have never been seen outside Italy before.
AD 79. In just 24 hours, two countries in the Bay of Naples, southern Italy, were buried by a catastrophic eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Preserved under ash, their rediscovery nearly 1,700 years later provided an unparalleled glimpse into the daily life of the Roman Empire.
In spite of the desolation that met the eyes of those who witnessed the aftermath of the eruption of Vesuvius, much was wrested from those ruins more than a millennium and a half later, and much continues to be found to this day – as recently as 1992, for example, 300 hundred bodies were excavated from the shore line close to Herculaneum. The volcanic ash had acted as a terrible preservative of sorts. Pompeii was said to have had a population of about 15,000, and only 10 per cent of those bodies were ever accounted for. Some must have fled, taking whatever was most precious to them – beside the felled body of a soldier we stare at a long sword, a stabbing dagger and a bag of tools. Others took with them a wicker basket heaped with bronze coins or the key to a house that would never be seen again.
The exhibition organizers have created a journey through time, with images of tranquil daily life in the ancient Roman cities that today are blended with the bustle of the city of Naples.
With over 20 years since the last major exhibition on Pompeii in the UK, recent discoveries alongside celebrated objects, including body casts, will reveal new insights into this highly captivating and human story.
Starting with the bustling street, and moving through the intimate spaces of a home, the visitor will be transported into the lives of ordinary Romans nearly 2,000 years ago, before devastation struck. From the atrium to the garden, bedroom and dining room, this personal journey reveals parallels with our own lives today.
The presentation is systematic, and after seen common daily life objects, artworks, jewels and paintings, the tragedy comes. You can 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. A little way away, among the most striking findings come down to London, is an entire family that died together in positions of pain and terror, braced against the hellish heat, huddled in an alcove under the stairs of their 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.
And as a reminder that ancient Romans were truly made of flesh and blood, curators have not forgot some erotic items preserved from the cities (look at the marvelous penis on the handsome figure that acts as a support for the cake stand, for example). The Romans, we know, were not ashamed of their bodies and not embarrassed about sex, differently from the British of today, who have placed a kind of signal “unsuitable for children” in front of the statue of the god Pan that mates with a goat.
Statues, garden furniture, food moulds, even a mosaic warning sign reading “Cave canem” (beware of the dog) placed at the entrance of Orpheus home in Pompeii, are indicators of just how much the average person loved their stuff.
Of course, watching all the ruins of Pompeii and Herculaneum closely on site is a different story, and I can understand that this is better than nothing for British who can not or do not want to travel and come to Naples, but it becomes inconceivable to me that other people – non-resident in UK – will have decided to travel to go to London to enjoy this small exhibition, rather than come in Pompeii.