Culture: Visual Arts

Life And Death In Pompeii And Herculaneum

Pompeii and Herculaneum

The story of Pompeii and Herculaneum is one of the most harrowing tales ever told. The cities that were devastated in AD79 by the exploding volcano of Mount Vesuvius, with catastrophic devastation to the people who perished in the downfall of hot ash which reached temperatures of 400 degrees Celsius.

The British Museum’s blockbuster show kicks off with one of the most iconic images we have of Pompeii, the cast of a dog, immortalised for eternity in its death throes. On the wall behind it is a beautiful, fragile fresco of two lovers – the woman showing off her naked body, while the man behind is enjoying wine which he languidly pours into his mouth from a drinking horn.

There’s much to delight the eye, with beautiful silver objects, gold jewellery and life-size statues that give us some idea of what Roman women and men looked like – or at least what their ideals of beauty were.

One of the most ravishing pieces of artwork is the fresco decorating a garden room, with very delicate brushstrokes and a masterfully drawn nightingale.

One can only marvel at how well preserved the items are. We know that the statue of a boy has blond hair, as the yellow paint that covers his locks still exists, as does the black paint on the eyelids and eyebrows.

It’s easy to be lulled into a false sense of security and think how similar we are to these ancient Romans. And to some extent we are, as in the domestic scenes of drinking in taverns and mosaics warning us to ‘Beware the dog.’

But the cruelty, brutality and pornographic images  that are depicted comes as something of a shock to our modern eyes. Something of a maidenly blush comes to the cheek as we sheepishly sneak a peek at the statue of Pan penetrating a goat. Apparently, this was viewed as an amusing garden ornament to the Romans, and they placed it outdoors for everyone’s enjoyment.

When it was discovered in 1752, horrified Neapolitans refused to put the horny Pan having his way with a nanny goat on public display. Instead, Naples Museum created a ‘Room of reserved objects’, with restricted access, to be viewed only by a chosen few.

The exhibition positively bristles with phalluses. They were viewed as good luck charms, and the bigger the better. The penis was a favourite decorative object on bronze wind chimes. Shops and bars often had windchimes in the shape of an erect phallus in their doorways, which symbolised good fortune.

Riotous scenes of sex abound, and in one fresco, a couple are at it hammer and tongs, while in the background, a slave watches the action. The Romans were generally comfortable with nakedness, and their homes lavishly decorated with erotic images.

There are also sinister undertones which make you feel a little queasy. For good sport and entertainment the Romans loved nothing better than seeing animals tearing each other to pieces.

Standing before a marble statue of stags being attacked by hunting dogs gives pause for thought about the cruelty and brutality of the Romans. It’s a savage piece. Almost lovingly the sculptor has put a great deal of effort and detail into the claws gouging into the terrified stag, while two more hounds savagely chew on lip and ear.

The motifs of love, sex and death are echoed throughout the exhibition, as if to say – as indeed the Romans did – ‘Carpe diem’, or seize the day, for who knows what tomorrow will bring. And historians tell us that the people of Pompeii and Herculaneum didn’t have a clue that the volcano was going to blow, preserving  their daily life as well as their moment of death for us to see over 1,700 years later.

This is a glorious show which will leaves us pondering on the fragility of life, as we gaze upon the plaster casts of men, women and children frozen in time.

Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is on at the British Museum from 28 March – 29 September.

Words: Fiona Keating

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