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Bringing Pompeii back to life

There are few ancient places that have the fascination of Pompeii. Corinna Lotz reviews a spectacular British Museum exhibition

Pompeii, Bay of Naples, Italy, 2012

Herculaneum, Bay of Naples, Italy, 2012

Pompeii has exercised a huge influence on the imagination of countless people since it was entombed by a volcanic explosion in AD79. Here was an entire city of some 20,000 people, whose life was interrupted and ended in mid-flow.

Long before systematic excavations began, local people in the Bay of Naples remained aware of the presence of not only Pompeii, but also the nearby town of Herculaneum. So much so, that from time to time they took marble and statues from the ruins for their own monuments. But it was not until the 18th century that extraordinary discoveries really began to gather pace.

Pompeii dog mosaic
Mosaic of a guard dog. From the House of
Orpheus, Pompeii, 1st century AD

The spectacular show in the British Museum’s reading room space has been organised together with the Soprintendenza for Naples and Pompeii, the special archaeological authority created by the Italian state. It is the first time that so many artefacts from both towns have been brought together.

The 450 objects are arranged so that we feel we are walking through a typical Roman house of the time – from the street to the pool-filled atrium, cooking, dining, sleeping areas and into the well-tended flower garden, complete with birds.

The horror of the eruption nearly 2,000 years ago hits you from the start. The blast affected each city differently, enveloping people in molten lava in Pompeii and carbonising, thereby preserving, organic substances in Herculaneum.

Herculaneum Bronze statue of a woman fastening
Bronze statue of a woman fastening
her dress. From the Villa of the
Papyrii, Herculaneum
1st century BC to 1st century AD

Despite their fragility, wooden furniture (including a baby’s cradle) as well as huge brightly-coloured wall paintings have been brought from Italy to London. Through sculpture, jewellery, painting and mosaics to every day utensils, window glass, cooking and eating vessels, lamps and even rude graffiti – the lives of these long-lost people speak to us in an amazingly direct way.

What gives these Romans, many of whom were freed slaves, such immediacy is that they clearly enjoyed life to the full – eating, drinking, arguing about politics, exercising their right to vote, making money and making love. Pompeii is thought to have had many brothels, but it is also apparent that wealthy people had erotic art on their bedroom walls. Explicit frescoes, sculpture and even wind chimes reveal a quite different attitude to sex than exists in our post-Christian world. It appears in a multitude of forms, ranging from wall paintings of mythic beings like Cupid and Psyche to semi-human satyrs and nymphs, to women who are angry with the goddess of love. One graffito carved on a wall is written by a girl who warns her man to beware of the goddess Venus – “the weaver of webs”.

Through magnificent statues such as that of the Priestess Eumachia we get an idea of the power of the Roman matriarch as well as the skill of lost-wax bronze casting. The artistic styles range from assertions of force and status, to the most delicate rendering of blossoms in paint and precious metals. But it is in the art of portraiture that we come face to face with the citizens of these Roman towns.

Terentius Neo
Wall painting of the baker Terentius Neo and his
wife. From the House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii.
AD 50 to 79

Busts of individuals like Lucius Caecilius Lucundus and the vivid fresco of Terentius Neo and his wife bring us up close and personal with the people of Pompeii. Terentius was a baker and his wife, elegantly coiffed and bejewelled, holds a stylus to her lips as though considering what to note down. Their images were found on the wall of a tablinium or reception room.

Lucundus was an ex-slave who became a banker and businessman. He grew rich from auctions, loans and leasing property. A tablet from his archive records an auction which raised enough money to buy eight slaves or pay 40 soldiers for a year. Some 154 such writing tablets were found in the Lucundus archive. A huge collection of papyrus scrolls was found in Herculaneum and when unrolled, they can still be read.

The closing section brings us up against the terrifying events which so cruelly ended the lives of the inhabitants of the two towns: people fleeing with sacks containing their jewellery, others hiding in corners, an entire household caught in mid-flight by the lava surge. The eruption of Vesuvius came out of the blue and they had no chance. Nothing could save them with temperatures reaching 450 degrees centigrade.

In today’s world, despite the huge advance of science, natural disasters like earthquakes and tsunamis can still make human enterprises seem ephemeral and even puny. That’s why the record of that event – conveyed with such immediacy – speaks to us of the transience of humanity.  

22 May 2013

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is at the British Museum until 29 September. Admission £15 with a range of concessions. For evening lectures, discussions and free films see App available for iPad, iPhone and Android. Exhibition book by curator Paul Roberts at £25/£45.

Photos © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei / Trustees of the British Museum

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