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London museum highlights last days of Pompeii

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One hears a lot about the death of Pompeii, the ancient town which along with several others in the Bay of Naples, including Herculaneum, was destroyed by the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, during the reign of the Roman Emperor Titus. The towns were so utterly and shockingly buried that Roman poet Statius said: “In the future, when crops grow again and this devastated wilderness blooms once more, will people believe that towns, people and estates are all buried beneath the soil?”

Millennia later, during the earliest days of archaeology – and indeed encouraging its development – these towns buried under over 20 metres of volcanic debris were finally rediscovered, and the very tragedy that wiped out their lives in one day has made them a keystone for understanding life in Roman towns.

Those of you travelling through London in September will be able to catch the final days of an exhibition which brings this life into sharp focus. The British Museum's Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which closes on the 29th of September, has quite rightly been acclaimed for its truly astonishing collection of materials, from huge wall paintings to the more humble and tiny personal items, and thoughtful design that reconstructs original living contexts in a way few exhibitions manage.

The exhibition layout follows the scheme of a Pompeiian house – specifically the House of the Tragic Poet, named, as many of the houses there, after its most celebrated contents, in this case a mosaic depicting a theatre scene in one of the central rooms. This mosaic is in fact not on display in the exhibition, but this is in no way a disappointment, as its success in gathering together so many items, including a great many that are not commonly represented in publications on Pompeii and handbooks of Roman Art, outshines such single highlights.

The exhibition opens with street life outside the house. This is not quite as evocative in terms of layout as what follows, but does much to set the scene by using sounds of metal and stone working, and humming of traders and townsfolk. Immediately, my imagination was stimulated by a range of lesser-seen items, such as an inscription which marked off house properties (presumably between two warring owners) and a painting of a Phoenix from the exterior of a taverna (one imagines pub signs which might also function as good luck talismans). Perhaps most charming is a set of small wall paintings from within a tavern, which showed patrons engaging in increasingly wayward behaviours, reminding me of both Hogarth's paintings of degeneracy in 18th century England (incidentally viewable in the Sir John Soane Museum, a wonderful house museum not far from the British Museum) and – for those who are stopping through Istanbul – caricatures of Istanbul neighbourhood ‘types' on the wall of the Café Smyrna, itself a popular ‘taverna' in the trendy Çihangir district near Taksim.

One then moves into the house proper and through several rooms: the atrium, where a pool would collect rainwater, recreated here with the use of lighting to simulate reflections of the water in the pool; the tablinum (a multifunctional room sometimes used as a kind of office); dining rooms; bedrooms; and kitchens, where one learns that rather horrifyingly (for us) the latrine was often set, explaining the concentration of shrines to protective household gods in these areas.

Well-known items on display include the famous and breathtaking ‘garden paintings' which decorated the entire walls of a dining room of one rich house – a real feat to have shipped from the museum of Naples to London. This and a mosaic of sea life from another house show the interest in identifying specific species of animals and plants, and other paintings, both portraits and still lives, indicate the pursuit of knowledge and literacy on the part of homeowners here, tradesmen and aristocracy like. Another better-known item is a relief depicting an earthquake (presumably one which preceded the eruption of Vesuvius by some 17 years), once displayed in a household shrine. The less well-known and less ‘photogenic' items are perhaps even more fascinating though, and certainly do much to capture the more earthy aspects of day-to-day life in these houses. The exhibition does a particularly good job of showing graffiti often scratched onto the painted walls by both adults and children. Some show images of battling gladiators and animals, perhaps bringing memories of a day out back home, others comment on the paintings themselves. In the ‘bedroom', one woman complained in writing about Venus, who she obviously held responsible for her seemingly unhappy love life.

The exhibition concludes with the more poignant casts of the dead, whose bodies were encased, along with their possessions, in the ash which rained down on their towns. The Roman writer Pliny the Younger, who was at home across the bay and whose uncle, the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder died trying to rescue people from Pompeii described,

“Though it was the first hour of the day, the light appeared to us still faint and uncertain. And though we were in an open place, it was narrow, and the buildings around us were so unsettled that the collapse of walls seemed a certainty. We decided to get out of town to escape this menace. The panic-stricken crowds followed us, in response to that instinct of fear which causes people to follow where others lead. In a long close tide they harassed and jostled us. When we were clear of the houses, we stopped, as we encountered fresh prodigies and terrors. Though our carts were on level ground, they were tossed about in every direction, and even when weighted with stones could not be kept steady. The sea appeared to have shrunk, as if withdrawn by the tremors of the earth. In any event, the shore had widened, and many sea creatures were beached on the sand. In the other direction loomed a horrible black cloud ripped by sudden bursts of fire, writhing snakelike and revealing sudden flashes larger than lightning… Once more, darkness and ashes, thick and heavy. From time to time we had to get up and shake them off for fear of being actually buried and crushed under their weight.”

The exhibition represents a unique opportunity to see so much which sheds light on these once lost towns in one place, and will provide an valuable complement of anyone travelling on to see the actual sites in Italy, or indeed the remains of other ancient towns and houses in the Mediterranean, including Turkey. Advance tickets are sold out, but they are available on the day (with a bit of a queue). It's worth the wait to see the last days of this fabulous Pompeii.

A plaster cast of a dog, one of many exhibits at the British Museum's Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition

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Published September 11, 2013 at 9:00 am (Updated September 10, 2013 at 7:50 pm)

London museum highlights last days of Pompeii

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