What Can We Learn From Life 2000 Years Ago?

The British Museum’s major new exhibition of artifacts from the buried city of Pompeii shows that the Roman city was bustling with action.


Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article titled “British Museum’s Pompeii exhibition has its emphasis firmly on life” was written by Charlotte Higgins, for The Guardian on Friday 8th March 2013 10.41 UTC

Pompeii – and to a much lesser extent, Herculaneum, the less visited, and so more rewarding, destination for modern tourists – are bywords for death. The big moment in exhibitions devoted to Pompeii is usually courtesy of one of those eternally poignant casts of figures – images in plaster of the voids once filled by the human form, flesh decayed to nothingness after the superheated debris and ash hardened into a solid mass around them. (There are no such figures from Herculaneum. Nearer Vesuvius, the town was engulfed by even hotter pyroclastic surges than those that poured over Pompeii. Humans were immediately pulverised to the bone, brains boiling in their skulls.) The British Museum’s forthcoming exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, does contain some of these casts; but it has its emphasis firmly on life. The first image in the show is the famous “cave canem” mosaic; its last a reminder of the living people of the cities, before the catastrophe of 24 August AD79: a set of characterful sculpted portrait heads, the sort of warts-and-all Roman busts that make you gasp at the familiarity and ordinariness of these long-gone Campanians.

The exhibition is centred on the Roman house: a familiar enough trope, and one that may invite us to recognise and empathise with these ancient householders, with their perfectly ordinary faces. Visitors will walk through sections organised to recall a “typical” room layout: first, the shopfront and the atrium; then we are led to the garden, the cubiculum, the living rooms, the dining room, the kitchen. Which all sounds tremendously familiar, except that it is a trap: for it is extremely difficult to decode how these rooms actually worked, what they felt like. Take the cubiculum, which every schoolchild learning Latin can confidently translate as “bedroom”. Except, as curator Paul Roberts points out, it does not seem to have much resembled our idea of a bedroom at all. “A whole range of activities could have taken place there,” he writes. “These included washing, dressing, grooming and adorning the body, but also some rather more unexpected activities such as eating small meals and holding business meetings. Sometimes the cubiculum even served as a toilet.”

And talking of toilets, frequently they appear to have been in the culina, generally translated as kitchen, and right next to the food-preparation area. (The lav also came with its own tutelary deity: a fresco from Pompeii shows Isis protecting a man as he relieves himself, with the slogan “cacator cave malu(m)” – shitter, beware the evil eye.) There is, as so often when looking at the Romans, a feeling of double exposure: a simultaneous sense of recognition, that they were somehow “just like us” – alongside an opposite sense, of alienation and confusion.

If that kind of thing were not enough to deal with, the state of Pompeii and Herculaneum in AD79 is ill-understood: it is hard to tell precisely what kind of places these were, as they entered their last days as living towns. As Mary Beard wrote in an essay in 1999, and later in her book Pompeii, it is hard to contend – as it has suited so many writers, artists and film-makers to do – that the eruption of Vesuvius came out of the blue. Days of earth tremors and a mushroom cloud rising above the mountain on the morning of the eruption gave warning signs of the disaster to come. Despite the various signs of life interrupted (bread in the oven, inhabitants fleeing with house-keys or bags of cash in their pockets), “what survives is emphatically not a frozen moment in the life of a community going about its normal business, but the traces of a city abandoned and already half-stripped.”

There are more puzzles. There had been an earthquake in 62 and it is far from clear what that meant for the Pompeii of 79. Was it already half-deserted? Or just a bit gone to seed? Or, indeed, was it in the process of being restored to its former glory? (In the House of the Painters at Work, scaffolding, lime, tubs of plaster and 50 paint pots were found, abandoned mid-job.) On top of that, there is the fact that the city seems to have been looted almost immediately by scavengers – or returning householders – tunnelling down through the debris. “This room has already been gone through,” reads a scrawled graffito on one Pompeiian wall.

The “going through” began again in the 17th century for Herculaneum and in the 18th for Pompeii. By modern standards, these were ransacks, not excavations, with attractive frescoes ripped out of walls and sent, along with any obviously artistic artefacts, to the Bourbons’ Portici Palace. Anything else was destroyed out of sheer carelessness, or for fear of its being sold to foreigners. Herculaneum lay as much as 23 metres below its modern town, so tourist access was through a treacherous series of tunnels. (It got a bad write-up in Mariana Starke’s hugely popular Travels on the Continent for its “damp and oppressive atmosphere”, the sort of Lonely-Planet-style warn-off that contributed to its relative lack of popularity compared with Pompeii, which could be uncovered fully, allowing visitors could walk its streets.)

It is a cliche to observe, with Freud, that “the destruction of Pompeii was only beginning now that it had been dug up”; that the “actual work of the volcano” was “done in our time”. William Gell, whose Pompeiana, the first comprehensive English account of the “topography, edifices and ornaments of Pompeii”, first published in 1817-18, reported that the monuments “are beginning to suffer from the effects of that exposure which has taken place since their second birth … the alternations of winter and summer have generally effaced the paintings, and, in many instances, entirely stripped the stucco from the walls”. At least the artefacts and frescoes carried off by the Bourbons survived – such as the glorious fresco, hewn from its wall in the town of Stabiae, of the goddess Flora. Dressed in a saffron robe that drifts seductively off one shoulder, she is seen half from behind; she is delicately plucking a flower with her right finger and thumb while her left arm cradles a cornucopia of blooms. The whole is on a grass-green background: everything about the image breathes spring.

Recent excavations have, of course, been undertaken with much more care: one of the highlights of the London exhibition will be the heart-stopping garden frescoes excavated in the 1970s from The House of the Golden Bracelet in Herculaneum. They depict a glorious half-wild, half-domesticated riot of oleanders, myrtles and palms set about with sculptures and fountains, through which flutter beautifully depicted wild birds: a jay, a swallow, a magpie, pigeons and, loitering shyly among the foliage, a golden oriole.

The cultural impact of the rediscovery of Pompeii and Herculaneum was vast, and continues: it spans the visit by the 14-year-old Mozart to the Temple of Isis in Pompeii, an experience that bore fruit in The Magic Flute, all the way to Mark Rothko’s Seagram murals, now in Tate Modern. He made them after a trip to Pompeii and the influence on them of the illusionistic “second style” of Pompeiian fresco-making has been detected, while the Pompeiian reds and yellows of many of the ancient wall paintings are faintly echoed in the abstract expressionist’s palette. For writers, the city has frequently brought with it a heavy moral freight: Proust, in Le Temps Retrouvé, has the Baron de Charlus imagine his own prewar Paris as a latter-day Pompeii, when “the lava of some German Vesuvius shall come and surprise” the decadent inhabitants; he envisages Madame Molé destroyed in the act of “completing her fake eyebrows”. For Robert Harris, author of the recent thriller Pompeii, the story is, in part, “hubris and nemesis”; a fable on the “notion that an ordered society, where everyone assumes that life will always go on … is suddenly interrupted by a force outside their control” – as he told his interviewers in the essay collection Pompeii in the Public Imagination. It is no great leap to those contemporary catastrophes, Hurricane Katrina and 9/11.

For generations of Britons the experience of Pompeii was mediated through Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1834 potboiler, The Last Days of Pompeii, which, if nothing else, stands as evidence of the changes wrought in literary taste over the past century or so. Bulwer-Lytton’s Pompeii is a city full of degenerates coasting unknowingly towards disaster. His hero and heroines (Glaucus, Ione and Nydia, locked in a lengthily described love triangle) are Greek: by contrast with these pure-spirited Hellenes, the Roman inhabitants, with their kitsch tastes and cruelty, have it coming. To ice the cake, a postlude describes how Glaucus, having been saved from the flames and lava (think fire and brimstone), converts to Christianity. The sensational description of the final catastrophe involves the villain, the Egyptian Arbaces, who would certainly have a moustache to twirl if first-century fashion had allowed, being toppled by a statue of Augustus that itself has been struck by lightning. “A ghastly face,” wrote Bulwer-Lytton, “seemed to emerge, without limbs or trunk, from the huge fragments of the shattered column – a face of unutterable pain, agony and despair.” The book sold 10,000 copies on its first day of publication, and was wildly popular in various stage adaptations. The film programme for the London exhibition will include Sergio Leone and Mario Bonnard’s 1959 sword-and-sandals epic loosely based on the novel, as well as an earlier Italian adaptation: Ione, or the Last Days of Pompeii, from 1913, which will be screened with live musical accompaniment.

Bulwer-Lytton’s book was closely indebted to, and indeed dedicated to, Gell’s Pompeiana. He quite often shifts into tour-guide mode, as when offering a description of Pompeiian domestic architecture, or explaining that a Roman litter resembled “a vast sedan-chair, more commodiously arranged than the modern”. It shares this occasional tour-guide quality (despite the fact that most of its readers would never visit Pompeii) with Roberto Rossellini’s Voyage to Italy (1953), a curious, often inscrutable neorealist drama starring George Sanders and Ingrid Bergman (Rossellini’s real-life wife) as a married couple, the Joyces, visiting Campania to see about a bequest from “Uncle Homer”. As their relationship falters, Sanders disappears on his own little odyssey to visit the modern sirens of Capri. Bergman, on the other hand, fondly recalls an old flame, now dead – a poet. “Temple of the spirit,” she quotes wistfully, as she gazes towards Vesuvius, “no longer bodies, but pure, ascetic images.” She would like to forget bodies, but they are everywhere she goes on her touristic outings: pregnant women on the streets, the bones of the Neapolitan dead piled high in the Fontanelle catacombs; the all-too physical naked sculptures in the Museo Archeologico, dramatically shot. The crucial moment comes when the Joyces visit the excavations at Pompeii: the archaeologists have found a void, and they are making a cast. The couple, uncertain, fractious, on the brink of separation, look on. The archaeologists set about with their brushes, cleaning the debris from the fresh cast and, out of nothingness – pure spirit – comes, once more, a human form.

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