The names Pompeii and Herculaneum strike the fear of death. Even if you can’t recall the date of AD79, you will probably know that these cities in southern Italy were wiped out when the volcano on nearby Mount Vesuvius erupted.
Thousands of lives were lost in the ash showers and intense heat that followed; the residents were buried alive with their possessions and Pompeii and Herculaneum disappeared. Little was then said of the cities until they were re-discovered in the 1700s.
Pompeii and Herculaneum are the subject of the British Museum’s new exhibition, which opened this weekend. But rather than focusing on that devastating day in AD79, the emphasis of the show is very much on life – the very consequence of the volcano taking place, whereby countless impressive artefacts were preserved in the dense ash, provides us today with a snapshot of day-to-day life from almost two thousand years ago.
From such an extraordinary event, some pretty much ordinary items (around 300 in total) have been assembled – many of which are on show for the first time.
There is, for example, a blackened loaf of bread with the name of its baker (Celer or ‘Speedy’) stamped on it. And a plate of figs, is arranged as if they have just been served up.
We see the mirrors and cosmetics that belonged to residents, used perhaps before they headed out for an evening of entertainment. And there’s the crib of a young child.
After passing through the ‘Street’ (which includes fascinating preserved frescos depicting the goings on in pubs such as drinking, love-making and landlords kicking out punters for getting involved in drunken brawls), the majority of the show focuses on the home. Each exhibition area charts finds from different ‘rooms’ of houses in Pompeii and Herculaneum.
And what the exhibition shows is that the people living two thousand years ago enjoyed many of the things that we still hold to be important today. Residents of the two cities loved their gardens; they placed benches in spots where they could enjoy singing birds, plants, fountains and sculptures (many of which are contained in the show). I found some of the colourful wildlife scenes on frescos that would have been hung in garden rooms pretty impressive.
Residents seemed also to have an equally good eye for design in the house as well. People wanted to impress their friends so they invested huge amounts of time and money in making their interiors look splendid; carved ceiling panels (shown on this page) make this point well.
The hype around this major exhibition is growing by the day. Ticket sales have been impressive (around 50,000 were sold in advance – the highest number for a British Museum exhibition for five years).
And there have been a number of TV programmes and what seems like endless travel features on the Bay of Naples and surrounding area.
But whatever the exhibition does to portray day-to-day life in intimate detail, in my opinion the exhibition would enjoy nowhere near the same appeal without the death and destruction of the actual erupting volcano. If, for some other miraculous means, artefacts were preserved in the way that they have been buried in the ash, would so many people still be interested in attending the show?
I think not.
Call the exhibition ‘Everyday life in two Roman cities’ and, no matter how impressive the exhibits, it would be much harder to get visitors through the doors. The fact is we love to see big scale disasters of the past brought to life with all the special effects of Hollywood. Schoolboys grow up remembering the story of how Vesuvius erupted, rather than how the destruction meant that important artefacts were buried.
Anyone wanting to know more about the eruption itself and the fateful last hours will not be disappointed however; the last room is dedicated to this, with impressive casts of the dead who have been captured in their final hours. We see, for example, a family in one scene and a dog guarding the entrance to a wealthy person’s home in another.
While this area of the show was particularly busy, for me it’s the bulk of the exhibits that focus on day-to-day life all those years ago that are the most important. It’s this sort of material that will fill the school textbooks and TV documentaries on social histories of tomorrow.
Visitors will come to the exhibition with death at the back of their mind, but quickly discover that everyday life is just as interesting.