Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

Roman fresco of a couple: Terentius Neo and his wife

(British Museum, London, until 29 September 2013)

If last year’s blockbuster exhibition was Leonardo at the National Gallery, this year’s is Pompeii at the British Museum. Both names have the kind of pulling-power that make it virtually impossible to get tickets, although I’m happy to say that there is still availability for some of the less appealing slots (we visited at 9am on a Sunday morning). Besides, 300 tickets are released by the British Museum every day, so you can always queue before opening time in the hope of getting one. Do try to see it. You won’t be disappointed.

The British Museum faced a challenge, of course: how to bring Pompeii and Herculaneum to life when so much of their appeal is bound up in the sites themselves? However, they rose to the occasion (as expected) in a clever and effective way. The show begins with an acknowledgement of the one thing that we all know about the two cities: the fate they suffered in 79 AD (either in August or October; the jury is evidently still out), when Vesuvius followed a string of minor earth tremors with an eruption of cataclysmic proportions. In the exhibition we are introduced to the tragedy in the form of the famous, but still heart-rending cast of a dog, thrashing about in its desperation to break its chain.

With a story like this, one has to begin with death; but, having shown us the end of Pompeii, the exhibition then invites us to step back and to consider the town – and that of Herculaneum – in the midst of its vivid, thriving life.

Roman garden fresco

Detail of the frescoes of a Roman garden, Pompeii, 1st century AD

We do this by walking through a series of rooms which progressively take us deeper into the heart of a Roman house, beginning outside in the street with its sounds of farriers and everyday bustle, and then passing into the atrium and beyond into the cubiculum, garden, living rooms and kitchen. In the atrium you find an impluvium, with a light effect suggesting the rippling of water; out in the garden you hear the twittering of birds. Without actually being a reconstruction of a Roman house, it conjures up the essence of each space and offers a logical progression from the outer world to the intimacy of the home.

Anyone who has done any reading on Pompeii, or who has been to the Museo Archeologico Nazionale in Naples, will recognise many of the exhibits. This really is a treasure trove of the most famous images of Pompeii, from the Cave Canem mosaic from the House of Orpheus, to the iconic fresco of the baker Terentius Neo and his wife, which is reproduced on all the posters. Nevertheless, no matter how many times I look at this double portrait, I find it utterly absorbing: I’m fascinated by the serenity and dignity of the young couple; their quiet self-assurance; and the woman’s thoughtful air as she holds her stylus and tablet, staring out at us.

In each of the rooms of the exhibition, you find objects appropriate to that part of the house, beautifully presented against walls panelled in Pompeian fresco colours, from amphorae to mosaics, frescoes to kitchen implements, jewellery and even fragments of taps and lead piping from the garden waterworks. Top of my list to take home would be a beautiful hand-held silver mirror and the splendid garden-room frescoes from the House of the Golden Bracelet, which would look lovely in my hallway. Then there are the intricate fittings from a bed, inlaid with mother of pearl and with a finial shaped like a horse’s head; and the exquisitely detailed micro-mosaic portrait of a woman. It is astonishing that such things have survived.

Roman Bracelet in the Form of a Snake

Roman golden bracelet in the form of a snake, Pompeii, 1st century AD

Two things were emphasised for me during the course of the exhibition. First, the Roman sense of humour was fresh, lively and irreverent: give me a Roman over a Victorian as a dinner guest any day. Secondly, it’s amazing to consider how much was lost when the Roman Empire fell and how many hundreds of years had to pass before we began to claw our way back to having large panes of glass in windows, or taps and lead pipes. In fact, there are other items which show that two thousand years of development have brought us back to some startlingly similar objects. Take, for example, the little wooden cabinet from Herculaneum, preserved by being carbonised during the pyroclastic surge. Complete with drawer (and a small bone or ivory knob) and two shelves concealed by doors, it looks almost exactly like the kind of bedside cabinet you can buy today. And, among the kitchenware, I spotted a mould in the shape of a hare which reminded me of the rabbit-shaped jelly and blancmange moulds you see in shops. We haven’t come back to eating dormice though, thank goodness.

As for the Roman sense of humour… I have to congratulate the curators on their translations of the Latin inscriptions in the show. Latin can seem forbidding and serious to those of us who don’t understand it, and so it was a delight to see the speech bubbles in some of the frescoes rendered into modern English. The Romans suddenly spring into vivid life, talking less like figures from a textbook and more like the people you’d meet down the (slightly rowdy) pub on a Friday night. One fresco from a tavern reads like a comic strip: two men argue over which of them has ordered the drink the barmaid has brought (‘Over here!’ ‘No, that’s mine!’); two other men play dice (‘I’ve got it!’ ‘That’s not a three, that’s a two!’); and two more men are thrown out onto the street by a barman after getting into a fight, in which one calls the other a fellator, which I guess you can translate for yourselves. Then there’s the fresco of a dinner party from the House of the Triclinium, where a female guest announces, ‘Right, all get comfy: I’m going to sing’, and someone else says, ‘Yes, you go for it’.

Their sheer lust for life comes through with a vengeance. Everywhere, of course, there are phalli, which for the Romans were a sign of fertility and good-luck, although judging by the flow of people, they exert more of a naughty fascination over exhibition-goers today. And that’s not mentioning the statue of Pan in flagrante with a she-goat, which I remember fondly as the one thing which actually did surprise me in the Gabinetto Segreto in Naples.

Pan and the She-Goat

Pan and the She-Goat, marble, 1st century AD

Bubbling with the life and energy of these people, you come to the final room of the exhibition; and, if you’re anything like me, your step will slow slightly and your heart will sink; because you know what’s coming next. You find yourself faced with the handful of casts chosen for the exhibition, one of which is most unusual as it is cast in resin rather than the usual plaster. I know that for many people these are a powerful draw, giving a direct connection to the final agonies of the residents of Pompeii and exerting the same fascination as the mummies in the Egyptian galleries of the Museum. Personally, I find them deeply disturbing, because these are not, after all, simply plaster casts. They are the people: their skeletons are enclosed within the plaster which filled the void of their soft tissue and clothing. I find that unnerving, especially when faced with a moving tableau like that of the two parents with their young children at the end of the show; but then, I’ve never been good with Egyptian mummies either. And I agree that it’s an immensely powerful way to conclude. The twin threads of life and death run throughout Pompeii; it is precisely because of one that we know so much about the other.

At its heart, though, this is an exhibition which is focused on life – the pulsing, spirited everyday life of an age which in some ways was so very different from our own, and in others disconcertingly similar. Its wealth of objects and the lively interpretations offered by the curators, both in the labels and the audio-guide, make 1st-century Rome appear tantalisingly close. (Paul Roberts and his team have done a wonderful job.) No matter when you go, it will be busy – and a minor quibble was the lighting, which meant that sometimes, when you stood in front of a label, it was obscured by your own shadow – but do go, if you have even the slightest interest in the story of Pompeii and Herculaneum, or in history in general. The catalogue is full of sumptuous reproductions and looks like a must-have for anyone interested in the period, although it seems to be more of a history book than specifically an exhibition catalogue: it doesn’t seem to make clear which objects are in the exhibition and which are simply reproduced for context. I haven’t actually started reading it yet; but I’m already a couple of chapters into Mary Beard’s Pompeii.

Buy the catalogue

This post was written before I began working at the British Museum.

Cave canem: Roman mosaic showing a dog

Cave Canem: detail from a mosaic of a dog at the entrance to a house in Pompeii, 1st century AD

3 thoughts on “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

  1. Anonymous says:

    This was a pleasure to read. I managed to get one of the last tickets this Tuesday. I knew what to expect when I went – my degree was in Classics and so nothing should have been unfamiliar. But then as always happens there's always something that startles and stays. This time – and so unexpectedly – it was the Roman tap from the garden, an object so familiar from today, and so indispensible you can't imagine life without it. It made me think where we might have been now if the technology had continued to evolve and innovate. Collapses and wars and regressions prevented that of course, but childishly (perhaps) I'm imagining the jet packs and clean energy and space exploration and so on and so forth for ever…

  2. The Idle Woman says:

    Thanks so much for your comment! And yes, I *totally* see where you're coming from with that. I am always completely amazed by the technological advancement to be seen in Roman artefacts and like you I enjoy diverting myself with a game of what if? What if the Roman empire hadn't collapsed? What if the Church had been more encouraging towards scientific experimentation in the early years, and kept the Roman knowledge alive? What if the Library of Alexandria hadn't been destroyed? So many questions. And then, of course, the real killer: What if they knew things that we have never rediscovered? A fascinating train of thought to follow. Not childish *at all*. Or at least, if it is, I'm childish along with you. 🙂

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