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…