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Jun 2013 Journal

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Art Notes (review)

Years ago I visited Pompeii. The Roman villas, the frescoes, the streets all had an air of having just paused for lunch on a hot Mediterranean day. But it took just 24 hours in AD 79 to submerge both Pompeii and its seaside neighbour Herculaneum under a pyroclastic deluge of volcanic ash and stones which erupted from Mount Vesuvius, killing some 16,000 inhabitants.
Pliny the Younger recalled the utter blackness; poets like Statius lamented the cities’ loss. I vividly remember the entwined bodies of a pair of lovers, entombed in ash for eternity. They had a Sleeping Beauty-like stillness.
This is the pathos of the British Museum’s excellent exhibition Life and Death: Pompeii and Herculaneum. But it is not death that the BM celebrates, but the intensity of industrial city life: from the frescoes to the marble statues, from the garden room murals to the ionic pedestals lining a shimmering pond, from the reconstructed sounds of hammering, tiling, hewing to the lilt of birdsong and the sound of water.

A beautiful wall painting featuring the baker Terentius Neo and his wife holding writing materials to prove their literacy personifies marital equality. Another finely modelled sculpture of the priestess Eumacha, a wealthy landowner, denotes the highest office achievable by a woman.
It’s true that none of this represents the working or slave class of society. Inevitably what has survived is the lushness of the über-rich, whose homes bore names like the House of the Golden Bracelet. About one tenth of the bodies recovered were found with their jewellery - gold or bronze, iron or glass. We see lavishly decorated walls and floors, ornate mouldings, fabulous garden wall frescoes showing flora and fauna of every type. The 250 objects include marble reliefs and sculptures, carved ivory panels, an elegant table supported by a panther. There is an adorable white marble bust of a small boy with painted curly hair.
The Romans were a showy, libidinous lot, happy to walk around naked. Their bedrooms were erotic shrines to the gods of wine, love and fertility. In one painting, a man teaches his lover to play the lyre. A fresco of an amorous couple almost anticipates Degas in style and composition. Yet couples shared their bedrooms with the children. The gardens benefited from an aqueduct ordered in 10 BC by Emperor Augustus to bring piped water directly into the gardens.
However, there are already intimations of mortality. A mosaic skeleton warns that death comes in the midst of feasting. The famous dog in his death throes is the totemic image in explanatory texts and is extremely moving, as is the carbonised cake or the wooden cradle in which its tiny occupant was found swaddled.
These artefacts culminate in the inevitable tragedy: a 24-hour wall chart announces the times and dates of the first eruption - at mid-day to the following morning - when the utter darkness described by Pliny covered the Bay of Naples. There, at the end, perfectly preserved, are a family who died with their two children, together and yet each one alone. Go see it! Until 29 September.

Gloria Tessler

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