Our fascination with the Roman ruins of Pompeii is fuelled by both our interest in remnants of an antique era and our awe at how such a vibrant city – in just a matter of hours – could be entombed by a natural disaster and lost for centuries. The British Museum’s new blockbuster exhibition does a balancing act by focusing squarely on the eruption of Vesuvius in its first and last sections, while presenting at its heart an analysis of what Pompeii’s architecture and objects show about its highly sophisticated society.
Faces staring at us from the past in a wall painting of baker Terentius Neo and his wife from the House of Terentius Neo, Pompeii, 50-79 CE. © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei/Trustees of the British Museum. The BM’s masterstroke is to lay out the centre of the exhibition in the manner of a Roman villa, with each space containing objects to embody the activities of a different room. The Roman kitchen, for instance, is represented by items as various as a metal colander, the signature of its maker inscribed in Latin in some of the discrete holes through which the liquid would drain; a ceramic pot for the confinement of house mice, who would be fattened up before being covered in honey and fried to perfection; and carbonized remains of bread, fruit and pulses that were incinerated whole on that faithful day in 79 AD.
Such millennia-old food sitting in front of you is one of the exhibition’s more uncanny sights. Due to the particular temperatures of the volcanic material that engulfed it, Herculaneum – a smaller city nearby in the bay of Naples whose remains are also the subject of the show – had much of its organic matter kept intact, from food to wooden furniture to paper scrolls.
There are some beautiful sculptures and art objects are on view, including small but exquisite marble wall reliefs dedicated to Bacchus and his followers, a very vivid freestanding sculpture of two stags being mauled by dogs, and some finely detailed jewellery and vessels in gold and other precious metals. But if you’re looking for masterpieces in these media, one might be better served visiting the Roman collections in the British Museum’s other rooms, which, for example, feature the extraordinary cameo glass Portland Vase (c.5–25 AD), and, of course, a whole host of stunning pagan and portrait statues.
Instead, the real draw for art enthusiasts is the many frescoes on view. There are more frescoes preserved from Pompeii and Herculaneum than the whole of the Roman Empire put together. They are a site seldom seen in London – you won’t find any of note in public collections – and they should be savoured, showing as they do the technical skills, including linear perspective, that were lost or rejected during the medieval era. Examples range from the erotic, such as a suite of works showing various gods getting up to no good, to scenes of everyday life and – in the exhibition’s ‘garden room’ – resplendent images of summer gardens populated by birds, some of which, such as a grey wood pigeon, are still familiar to us two millennia later.
- Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum British Museum,
until 29 September 2013
Sam Phillips is a London-based arts journalist and contributor to RA Magazine