The lives and loves of the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum are elegantly displayed in this moving collection of artefacts and frescos – the first such major exhibition to be held in London for almost 40 years.
As we enter the ancients’ world, we enter their homes. The circular reading room at the British Museum has been cleverly partitioned to give the experience of walking through a typical aspirational home in Herculaneum, the wealthier of the two towns. At the entrance to the villa, we meet the first poignant exhibit, the famous cast of a dog who died guarding the entrance to its master’s home, and one of many reminders that we owe this exhibition to a terrible natural disaster.
But there is another symbol of guardianship, for it’s now thought that every house had a herm, a small statue of a man whose gigantic phallus was a symbol of protection rather than virility. And this is what makes Pompeii and Herculaneum unique. Without the 24 metres of ash and lava which protected the towns for almost 2000 years, much of what lay beneath would have been stepped on, cut up or simply disappeared. Subsequent generations might have found this little statue grotesque and lewd and very few of them have been found in one piece. The chances are that if it had not been buried it would likely not have survived.
This class of shopkeeping Roman citizen lived behind the shop, so as we stand in the street facing the facades we listen to the sounds of horses hooves, smiths working metal and dogs barking. But from this seemingly ordinary streetscape we penetrate the heart of the merchant’s castle, the relative privacy of the atrium which lies at the end of a narrow corridor between the shop facades.
All at once we are inside the semi-public hall where we find carved marble tables, trays of silver cups and treasure chests situated around a virtual water feature. Here is everything the merchant would have needed to entertained and impress his business associates. The painting below, of a baker and his wife, suggests that they were partners, equal in business and domestic life alike, and they are holding writing implements which suggest they valued education.
By contrast with the smart atrium, the adjoining bedrooms are modest affairs, just a few sticks of simple furniture, though everywhere are decorative frescos which denoted the upwardly mobile status of this merchant’s home. These rooms seem at first to be devoid of warmth, but we only see what survived, principally wood, leather and tougher materials.
We know there was linen, because we can see the linen chest. But we’ll never know whether the Romans softened these bare rooms with colourful furnishings. If their love of colour is anything to go by, then the chances are they did, and the intricate designs of their metal jewellery suggests the importance that was attached to personal appearance and surroundings. In addition, the ceiling panels which have been recovered in Herculaneum have now been reconstructed to show they were beautifully coloured and decorated.
Each room opens up a new area of fascinating domestic detail, but perhaps the highlight is the ‘garden room’ with frescos taken from a the Villa Ariana. The use of the Reading Room’s dome allows natural light to fall on these mosaics of dazzling freshness and citrus colours.
It’s a sad truth that unless the two cities had been hit in such a devastating, unforseen tragedy, we would know far less than we do about the Roman way of life. A tribute to the lost lives of their citizens is contained in a separate area of the exhibition where we see the casts of the hollows left by the ash and lava that once contained human corpses. With its shocking red backdrop, we are reminded in no uncertain terms about the heat that seared and killed a whole family who perished simultaneously in the pyroclastic current.
Rather sadly, this is the last part of the exhibition, and one is left with the tragic images of these figures as one emerges into the museum shop. The cynic in me suspects we are meant to spend lots of money to cheer ourselves up.
But if a pick-me-up is needed then go back to the start of the exhibition where the introductory film traces the events and illustrates some of the values of the two ancient cities. There’s a point where a description of the Pompeian way of living is voiced over footage of a modern Italian home.
We are left with the uplifting thought that though tragedy befell the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum, their way of life and their love of beauty are alive and well to this day.
Top Picture: Garden Room. Fresco from the Villa Arianna, Boscoreale, Italy