Pompeii is a vibrant presence in our cultural imagination. Many of us will have learned about it at primary school: how the volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 CE froze a moment of historical time, preserving forever the objects of daily life under the Roman Empire. Life and death are deeply intertwined here: it is only by a catastrophic natural disaster, which killed 16,000 people, that we have such an evocative record of the intricacies of their lives. The eruption can be problematically characterised as convenient, even a blessing, because of the mass of rare historical evidence with which it has left us. It has been repeatedly sensationalised since Pompeii first became a tourist hotspot in the 18th century. Type in ‘Vesuvius painting’ into Google Images and you’ll get a number of dramatic, moody pictures by 18th and 19th century artists, who saw the eruption through the powerful lens of Burke’s ‘Sublime’. Karl Brullov’s ‘The Last Day of Pompeii’ is a particularly hyperbolic example, revelling in the chaos it depicts. It is easy to look back from our safe historical distance and feel only the drama of the event, and not the tragedy.
This wonderfully curated exhibition at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, completely removes this sense of temporal distance. It makes the objects of the ancient past feel as if they have only just been put aside, and when the final room brings you to the eruption, it is moving and sensitive. There is one cast of a body from Pompeii, and it is displayed in (I felt)an appropriate and respectful way: set aside from the rest of the objects in a corner, the raised floor and the walls all black. The demarcated space and the blackness remove any sense of it being merely object in a museum; it reflects the feeling of a tomb while remaining neutral and subtle. The labels describing the eruption are honestly convey the horror of what happened. Crucially, the focus was not the great gain of historians, but the great loss of the people of Pompeii.
The balance between dark and light within the exhibition was perfectly tuned. The final room was distressing but in no way undercut the humour and joy of the other displays. It was easy to giggle at many of the objects – the ‘phallic hanging lamp and wind chime’ from a tavern made me laugh out loud.
I loved the details of daily life: a fresco warning against making yourself too vulnerable when using the toilet; another fresco showing someone giving out free bread to canvass votes (maybe Labour should have tried this?); a mosaic advertising a sauce made from fermented fish heads (yum); a banquet scene with someone encouraging his friend to sing (“go for it!” he says in Latin). And as well as humour and delicious anecdotal detail, there is great beauty and pathos. A quirky mosaic showing a skeleton with two jugs of wine tells banqueters to enjoy their meal, because life is short. Morbid, perhaps – or maybe life-affirming. A mosaic shows fish squirming and shimmering with intense naturalism; a cockerel pecks at pomegranate seeds, resplendent in orange and green. The objects were made all the more beautiful by their earthiness; by the knowledge that these were seen and appreciated every day, by people like us.
The curating perfectly demonstrates that for an exhibition to be a truly immersive experience, it doesn’t need to be overly complicated or whizzy. Earlier this year, I visited the London Mithraeum, a Roman temple of Mithras underneath Bloomberg’s European headquarters. It is very focussed on being ‘immersive’: objects were spaced far apart, dramatically lit, and ethereal light projections and ambiguous Latin voices were at play in the temple itself. It was impressive but not that effective; it felt too contrived and stopped the place from speaking for itself.
Far from being contrived, ‘Last Supper in Pompeii’ used light, sound and space in a subtle way that allowed the objects to take centre stage. The simple transition from light to dark in the final room spoke volumes. In the room about agricultural production, the walls had a mural of a lush Italian landscape, which contextualised the objects in a vivid and yet unobtrusive way. Sounds of birds filled the space, resonating with the sunny, warm feeling of many of the artworks. The room dedicated to the marketplace was narrow, long and high, echoing a street, and as you moved into the room about the villa, the walls were a deep red and the space opened up. These details were subtle yet effective; they made the gallery space feel warm and inviting, rather than cold and sterile. Most importantly, the curating allowed the objects to speak for themselves.
The balance of scholarly intelligence and down-to-earth exuberance made this exhibition powerful, joyful and moving. It transported me from a cold English December into the warmth and light of a southern Italian landscape. It ends on 12 January – I’m predicting it gets a rush of visitors towards the end, as I can’t think of a better way to fight off the post-Christmas blues.
All photographs are from the exhibition and are my own.