Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum

When I was seventeen and we went on a family holiday to the Amalfi coast, we paid a visit to Pompeii and Herculaneum. I have proof!


I recall posing like a dork, marvelling at how low the door frames were (I wouldn’t have looked out of place), and giggling at the many carved phalluses, but I have little memory of how looking around the two cities made me feel. I think I mostly felt hot and tired. Pompeii is no London, but its streets feel pretty endless when it’s over thirty degrees and you’re a delicate English rose such as myself. We did a lot of walking down long, straight streets with deep ruts from cartwheels (and people get annoyed about potholes now!), and to be honest it got a bit samey: gutted house after gutted house. Many of the most interesting and beautiful finds, the mosaics, frescos and statues, have been removed for conservation – understandably, since I saw people prising mosaic tiles from the ground to take home as souvenirs.

It’s easy to forget that Pompeii and Herculaneum aren’t just tourist reconstructions of Roman towns, but actual Roman towns where people lived, loved and (obviously) died, and because of the eruption in AD79 many of the intimate details of these lives have been preserved. The aim of the Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum exhibition at the British Museum is to shift the spotlight away from the Death, which everyone knows about and is morbidly fascinated by, and to shed more light on the Life of the inhabitants of these two places. I greedily went to see it twice in the space of a week, but gladly, because it’s an excellent exhibition.

I’ve mentioned before that I like it when I’m led around an exhibition in some logical order, so I feel I’m being told a story. This is a perfect example of that. It’s laid out like a typical house in Pompeii or Herculaneum, and as you walk through you experience daily life as a Roman citizen: wandering down the bustling street reading election posters, crossing the road via stepping stones to avoid the sewage, popping into a roadside shop to enjoy some delicious rotten fish sauce. You then enter the house and explore the various rooms and the objects that belonged in them. In the living room, frescos with graffiti of gladiators scratched into the plaster by children; in the bedroom, a crib whose occupant died in the blast; in the kitchen, carbonised food and an intricate colander. Who knew they had colanders and glass window panes and water fountains, that the women tied gold ribbons in their hair and wore blush, that they scratched lines from Virgil into their walls? But of course they did, because they were just normal people. The exhibition does a great job of driving that home, but it also highlights how they were different: while to us decorating almost anything, from weighing scales to bells, with gargantuan phalluses might be obscene, to them it was commonplace, a funny joke or a way to bring good luck.

To me, however, this focus on everyday Life combined with my knowledge that it was destroyed in a terrifying way, eventually brought the focus of the exhibition back around to the inevitable: Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum. You can’t have an exhibition on these places that doesn’t feature the famous plaster casts, and when you step out of the house you see some of the most iconic, including a family who appear to be falling back as the blast hits them, their muscles contracted by the heat, a child on its mother’s lap clawing at the wall. They also have this guy, who I took a photo of when I visited Pompeii:


My witty comment at the time was that, if I knew I was about to be engulfed by ash and preserved for generations to come, I would try to look a little bit less pathetic about it, maybe do a peace sign or a double thumbs up or some intriguing pose that would have historians scratching their chins for eternity. Now we know they had no idea what was coming, since the pyroclastic surge tore through Herculaneum at a speed of 100mph and killed everyone instantly. Having seen the exhibition, I now feel closer to this guy (sorry for making jokes about you, pal).

I also left with a renewed vigour for life and the usual pretentious philosophical speculations about the brevity of worldly existence, meaninglessness of material wealth and class hierarchies, etc. My little Surrey village is unlikely to get destroyed by a volcano any time soon, but there are many ways in which, metaphorically, the things I think are important could suddenly become ash. So I’d better make the most of things. Perhaps they should rename the exhibition: ‘Pompeii and Herculaneum: YOLO.’ It might draw in the younger crowds…


Barocci: Brilliance and Grace at the National Gallery

Usually around this time of year I would write my annual birthday post, recording my latest adventures in my inevitable progression towards actually being middle-aged rather than just acting it… but since this year’s birthday celebrations involved receiving a new bin and some slippers and having a two-hour nap, I think I’ll skip over it.

Infinitely more interesting, today I went to see the Barocci exhibition at the National Gallery. Who on earth is Barocci, you might ask? Exactly what I said to myself. Well, after an hour’s wander round the gallery I am now an expert and can tell you all about the man himself… meet Barocci!

Is it just me, or does he look a bit Gollum-ish? I think it’s the huge eyes and the intense gaze. Someone is possibly dangling a shiny object just in front of him to his right. Despite looking (in my opinion) slightly creepy and like he wouldn’t be much fun at a party (unlike those sexy Pre-Raphaelites), I discovered today that he was a very good artist. This exhibition attempts to raise his profile amongst people like me with a casual interest in art, and it does a very good job of providing a lucid introduction to his work.

To steal information from the National Gallery website, Federico Barocci was an Italian artist who lived between about 1533-1612. He was highly regarded in his time and is ‘celebrated as one of the most talented artists of the late 16th century’, but seems to be relatively unheard of today. He produced many beautiful altarpieces, which demonstrate his fascination with the human figure and his skill for blending light and colour. To me the figures in his paintings seemed to be bathed in a kind of spiritual glow, but as well as being religious emblems their fluidity and gestures made them appear very natural and human too.

What came across strongest in the exhibition is that while Barocci clearly had a natural flair for sketching what was in front of him (the Grace), he didn’t take this for granted, putting a painstaking amount of work and technical skill into every work he created (the Brilliance?). Every painting is hung alongside numerous sketches he created as he worked out the composition of the final piece. Many of these are studies of the heads and hands of the figures, and could pass as beautiful works in their own right. My favourite was this of the Virgin Mary:

Barocci Mary

I love the contrast between her glowing porcelain complexion and the rough pencil strokes of her hair and the background shadows. But the painting of which this came to be a part of is also spectacular and more ‘virtuoso’. I appreciated it all the more more for seeing the preparation that gone into it and understanding how something seemingly small such as the position of a hand or the angle of a head affects the whole piece, and therefore had to be perfect.

I wonder why, despite being very talented, Barocci has been so underappreciated; possibly because almost all of his paintings are religious. It has to be said that there are an awful lot of 16th century paintings of the Virgin Mary out there, and it’s hard for someone like me to notice the subtle but important differences between them all. Supporting this theory is the fact that Barocci’s most popular work – at least the work that appeared all over the merchandise in the gift shop – is a preliminary sketch of half a cat that ended up in one of his paintings. A cat which isn’t even in the painting anymore because it was damaged.

Study For A Cat....Federico Barocci

Recognise this? It is quite adorable, but not representative of Barocci’s whole body of work at all (and it doesn’t make me want to buy a cat-shaped egg cup, despite the excellent range in the shop). The exhibition is definitely worth a look. It’s £12, which I would have thought a bit much on my intern wages, but if you have a Waterstones loyalty card you can get two tickets for the price of one. Books and art really do go hand in hand!

Pre-Raphaelites: Victorian Avant-Garde

This is just a quick post, as I have nothing amusing to say today. However, I want to recommend the Pre-Raphaelites exhibition currently on at the Tate Britain, which I went to on Tuesday. We spent a few weeks looking at the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in my second year of uni, but that was obviously more from a poetry perspective. I didn’t realise how ‘avant-garde’ their art really was at the time – how their use of bright colours, flat surfaces and scenes depicting intimate human moments went entirely against everything they were taught as art students. I love how intense and energetic their paintings are, almost like photographs that have been put into photo editing software and had all their colours intensified. That probably sounds stupid, but oh well. I’m no art critic.

I also thought the exhibition was very well curated. I tend not to be very good at art galleries, as I usually somehow end up walking through them backwards and wondering why nothing makes sense. This exhibition was very easy to navigate and the explanations of the pieces were helpful. It is divided into themes prominent to the PRB: history, nature, salvation, beauty, paradise and mythologies. My favourite was the ‘beauty’ section, which displayed paintings from the 1860s when the Pre-Raphaelitism was moving towards the Aesthetic movement (basically ‘art for art’s sake’) and beauty itself was the sole subject of their work. As someone who usually likes paintings because they are ‘pretty’, it was nice to have what I thought was my rather naive appreciation of art validated!

After studying the PRB at uni I thought I had a literary crush on Rossetti, but this might be more because of that Desperate Romantics series on the BBC where he was played by Aidan Turner. After seeing the exhibition my new artistic crush is Millais. I found his work by far the most striking. As autumn is my favourite season, I want to share two of his paintings which to me totally capture the mood of autumn.

Autumn Leaves (1855-6)
Chill October (1870)

I just want to run through that blustery landscape in my boots, hat and scarf, inhaling the smell of bonfire smoke, before returning home to drink hot chocolate and watch Merlin on TV. Yes, Merlin, the highlight of autumn broadcasting. And with that dramatic lowering of the tone, I leave to you enjoy the art.

A few thoughts on art

Gaaah I’m sorry! I haven’t had the inspiration to blog at all recently. I feel like the humdrum of 9-5.30 work has caused the creative part of my brain to shrivel. I don’t want to turn into one of those work-obsessed people whose only regular form of intellectual stimulation is slumping on the sofa after work to watch Eggheads. So, here’s a post about art.

I love looking at art, but sometimes I just don’t understand it.

I love books because they tell stories. Yes, I like ‘high-brow’ novels where the main characters spend two hundred pages mulling over their existential crises and the plot events could be summarised in two bullet points (‘John has existential crisis. John jumps off a cliff’), but I struggle to enjoy anything that doesn’t have some semblance of a narrative. Books intrinsically contain narratives; art doesn’t. You have to make it up yourself. I know they say a picture tells a thousand words… But you don’t get one thousand word novels, do you?

Plus, it isn’t always obvious what story a picture tells. Perhaps that’s why I struggle with some modern art. Looking at a portrait, I can read into the subject’s facial expression, his clothes, the objects he’s posing with, and try to imagine his story. Looking at a square of red paint, or a mouldy turnip in a boot, or a taxidermy giraffe standing on its head, I just think, what on earth is that supposed to mean? And if the plaque has to tell me that the turnip represents the hardship of agricultural labourers in the nineteeth century or whatever, well, did the artist really have to faff about with vegetables in order to make that point?

I expect other art-lovers disagree with me. I just don’t like the idea of meaning being attached to something afterwards. It seems a bit like Shakespeare attaching a note to his sonnets saying, ‘By the way guys, this is actually about my homoerotic love for another bloke, yeah?’ I suppose that would have saved us a lot of time in my third-year seminars…

A friend and I wandered into a free exhibition the other day. There was a musical score in a glass case, which just looked like someone had used it as flypaper. Next door was a room in which the corresponding music was being played, on repeat. A horrendous white noise that vibrated in my ears until it felt like my head was about to explode. Accompanying this was an looped video of a person in a car with the wheels spinning backwards, not going anywhere. Over and over and over. The plaque on the wall informed us that this was a metaphor for the endless circularity of life, or some other such drivel.

And that experience was supposed be enjoyable.

Perhaps I’m a philistine. It just seems to me that if I could produce something by smashing my face against a keyboard and then driving my car into a muddy ditch while my mate films it, I’m not being particularly… creative. And if I then tried to sell my creation to someone for five hundred quid… wouldn’t that be a bit cheeky? I know great art doesn’t have to be ‘beautiful’ in the traditional sense. I love books that make me feel uncomfortable. But I have never developed an involuntary facial twitch after reading a book, as I had when I left that gallery.

The other thing is that as much as I love going to art galleries, I feel I am not very good at them, because I have very little technical knowledge of art. The other week my friend and I went to the Lucian Freud exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery. I could tell Freud was talented (aside from the fact most of the men in his paintings had appendages bigger than their own heads… dream on, Freud), I just didn’t know how to respond. Art galleries are awkward places. I feel they require a code of behaviour I haven’t mastered yet.

As I walk around the gallery (usually in the wrong order – screw the Man and his consecutive numbers!) I stop at each piece and perform the same little pantomime of ignorance:

Stand and stare at painting for a minute. Tilt head slightly to one side. Make vague noises: ‘Hmmmmmm’, Wooooow’, and occasionally, ‘Int-er-es-ting…’

Exchange knowing look with stranger next to me, as if profoundness of piece has broken down our English reserve (unless the painting features nakedness in any form, in which case, do not make eye contact with anyone or they will think I am a pervert).

Look down at pamphlet. Sagely repeat out loud whatever is written about piece: ‘This is Margery, his second wife, naked in his studio; her scared expression suggests she feels threatened by the aggressive masculinity of the painter’s gaze. Margery walked out a month later…’

Realise I am not the only person in the room who can read. Feel embarrassed. Attempt to make an original comment: ‘Yeah – I love the way she looks all – yellow-y… and his use of… wonky lines…’ Receive scathing looks from people wearing flamboyant neck-scarves who probably have degrees in Fine Art. Feel even more embarrassed.

To rectify failed attempt to sound clever, attempt to make witty, irreverent comment instead: ‘She’s looking a bit podgy… I can see why that marriage didn’t last, oh-ho-ho!’ When no one laughs, move swiftly onto next piece.


Nevertheless, I will continue to visit art galleries, because art should be for everyone. Perhaps one day I have some kind of epiphany and realise that actually, that taxidermy giraffe is the most beautiful thing I have ever laid eyes on and now I understand what it really means to be human. Until that time, I’m happy to stick with pretty landscapes and art that tells a clear story.