RA Magazine Spring 2013
Issue Number: 118
Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum
We have long been fascinated by the freeze-frame world of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Now the British Museum has brought these ancient cities to London. By Tom Holland
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 present is always with us. Hence our fascination with those moments in time when it seems to have been paused: a painter in the Palaeolithic era pressing his hand against the wall of a cave; an attendant knocking over a basket in a Pharaoh’s tomb. Eeriest, perhaps, are those fragments of domesticity preserved for us from the distant past, like flies trapped in amber, by sudden catastrophe.
This spring, the British Museum stages an exhibition devoted to the quintessence of such a scene: the pumice-engulfed remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum. Visit Bloomsbury, and faces two millennia old will stare back at you: a baker, Terentius Neo, and his wife; a freedman, Lucius Mammius Maximus, stern and draped in his toga; a priestess, Eumachia, her hair a faded orange.
Other artefacts redeemed from the two dead cities will also be on display: some, like a baby’s cradle, instantly recognisable; others, like a lamp adorned with a giant phallus, more disconcerting. These are treasures no less the precious for being so determinedly everyday.
Obsession with the two cities has been constant ever since they first began to be excavated in the mid-18th century. The destruction rained down by Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE cannot help but send a titillating shiver down the spine. Eyewitness accounts by Pliny the Younger, the labours of archaeologists, and the expertise of vulcanologists provide a good idea of the various stages by which Pompeii and Herculaneum met their doom. Throw in the twisted plaster casts of those who failed to escape, and it is hardly surprising that interest in the two cities should have been touched by a macabre relish. ‘How dreadful are the thoughts which such a sight suggests!’ exclaimed the English traveller Hester Lynch Piozzi in the late 18th century, with barely disguised delight. Visitors have been echoing the sentiment ever since.
Beware of the dog: a mosaic of a guard dog from the House of Orpheus, Pompeii, 1st century CE. © Soprintendenza Speciale per i Beni Archeologici di Napoli e Pompei/Trustees of the British Museum. Ghoulishness alone, though, does not explain why these cities should for so long have served the world as its most famous archaeological site. Pompeii and Herculaneum are monuments to normality as well as disaster. To tour them is to come across abusive graffiti, advertisements for fish sauce and recommendations for haircuts. It is to admire the elegance of elite villas and to shudder at the cramped cells used by prostitutes in the Pompeii brothel. It is to tread cart-rutted paving stones, and find it not the slightest effort to imagine the howling of dogs, the carousing of drunks and the reek of Roman bad breath.
Yet contrary to what many of the more lurid representations of the cities’ destruction imply, their populations were not wiped out en masse. In fact only the brave or foolhardy had remained in their homes to be entombed by the pyroclastic surge as it descended from Vesuvius. What we have, frozen in Pompeii and Herculaneum, are less scenes from a typical Roman cityscape than centres of population on their way to becoming ghost towns. The denuded character of the houses bears witness less to a taste for minimalism, than to wholesale evacuation.
Nor is that the only complicating factor. The very fame of Pompeii and Herculaneum means that centuries’ worth of repairs and restorations have created their own overlay to the Roman originals. Emblematic of this process are the wall paintings of the so-called Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, which seemingly portray a Dionysiac initiation rite – and yet the vividness of the relief owes much to an imaginative restoration carried out in 1909. Even more insidious is the sheer impact of the villa’s name: for the truth is that we cannot be certain that its friezes illustrate a mystery ritual at all. Scholars now freely acknowledge that their meaning defies precise certainty. It is not only the dust and ash of Vesuvius, then, that historians need to excavate to see through to the classical past of Pompeii, but also, in many cases, the theories and presumptions of the very excavators who went before them.
- Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum British Museum,
28 March–29 September 2013
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