Life and death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum

The portrait of Terentius Neo and his wife found in the ruins of Pompeii after the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79

They make a handsome couple: he holds a scroll in his right hand, wears a toga and has an air of self-importance that belies his youthful, wispy beard. She holds some kind of writing implement to her lips and looks away from the viewer in a state of contemplation. Her centrally parted, ringleted hair is at the height of fashion, as are the heavy pearl earrings. A hint of a smile plays on her lips. Life has been kind to Terentius Neo and his on-trend wife. But it is about to come to a wretched end.

The justly famous double portrait of the couple is among the highlights of the British Museum’s new show on Pompeii and Herculaneum. It is one of the finest pieces of art to have been found among the beautifully preserved pieces that were buried beneath layers of superheated ash following the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79.

The fresco is an eloquent and masterfully executed work. But it is also a vitally important piece of social history.

The brutal destruction of the two Roman cities may have captured the imaginations of subsequent generations like few other historical events. But, thanks to the preservative qualities of the volcanic ash (contrary to popular belief, lava played a minor role in the devastation), the finds at Pompeii and Herculaneum serve as peerless documents chronicling the nature of everyday life in the Roman empire.

Paul Roberts, the exhibition’s curator, talks me through the lessons of the double portrait, found at the site of a bakery. “We assume he is the bakery owner. He wears a white toga, which may mean he is a candidatus for political office. But his wife is the amazing one. She is the one with the reckoning tablet. They are equal, and they are shown equal, standing together, members of a confident, mercantile class.

“And this was the reality of life for a lot of Roman women. They wouldn’t have been little old ladies sitting at home. They were highly visible in society.” Roberts plays down their disenfranchisement. “Think of Edwardian England: no vote, no ability to stand for office but tons of money and tons of influence.”

This is the most complete show, Roberts believes, to illustrate the domestic life of the two cities. It is designed to show the riches that would have adorned the typical prosperous Roman household: its gardens, its dining rooms; its private jokes and its grandiloquent statements of self-importance. The Italian addiction to bella figura, he says, can be traced to the flamboyance of ancient Rome.

Tourists are generally advised that Herculaneum, a smaller city than Pompeii, offers the more satisfying visitor experience: less crowded, more intact. But they would be missing a trick, says Roberts. “It has been said that if you really want to imagine how Pompeii was in its prime, then you should visit on a day that is very busy with tourists.”

A pair of gold earrings discovered in the Vesuvian area

The bustling streets of the ancient city would have been full of shops, bars, living quarters and noise. Outside “Azelina’s Bar” in Pompeii’s centre, electoral slogans are inscribed on the walls, urging people to vote. The clay ovens of the bakeries here are reminiscent of the cheap pizzerias of modern-day Naples. The vibrancy of Roman civic life was not the least of its qualities. The recent rebranding of the site uses a slogan – “Pompeii Viva” – that tries to reminds its visitors not to focus unduly on the city’s dramatic demise. That is also the starting point of the exhibition.

As if to emphasise its focus on everyday life, the British Museum’s show features a 2,000-year-old loaf of bread, neatly divided into slices, from a Herculaneum bakery. Like the seven items of furniture on show from the smaller city, it has been preserved thanks to the temperatures of the ash debris here, which was higher than that which fell on in Pompeii. “When it encountered anything organic, it instantly baked it,” says Roberts, pointing to an elegant tripod table. “That is essentially barbecue charcoal.”

In Pompeii, on the other hand, the lower temperature of the ash had a different chemical reaction: furniture was destroyed but human bodies were “cooked” solid, and the ash solidified around them. When the bodies eventually rotted away, they left a detailed impression. The excavators who found the remains injected plaster into the hollow spaces.

Today these haunting effigies give the most harrowing evidence of what it must have been like to face the superheated spewings of the volcano, travelling at 70mph. The final part of the show, on “Death”, shows a family cowering under a staircase at the moment of impact. It is among the most moving things you will ever see in a museum. “We have tried to be as respectful as possible,” says Roberts. “We certainly didn’t want to have this long gallery of bodies.”

Casts of a family of victims of the eruption from Pompeii

But it is the life of the two ancient cities that he wants us to remember, rather than the gruesome deaths of their citizens. Thanks to what Roberts describes as the “outstanding” generosity of Italian museums, here are some of the most famous – and infamous – items to have been found in the excavations, viewed in their proper settings.

There is the extraordinary marble statue of the god Pan fornicating, in the missionary position no less, with a she-goat. The shocking work would have formed the humorous centrepiece of a garden. “It isn’t really bestiality,” says Roberts, a little defensively. “Remember that Pan is half-goat. And the nanny goat doesn’t seem overly concerned. What the Romans might have seen is the humour and, dare I say it, tenderness.”

On a more tranquil note there is the sublime fresco of Flora, goddess of flowers and spring, found in the villa of Ariadne at Stabiae, a figure of Botticellian grace and an important signifier of Romans’ desire to bring a sense of rural idyll to their busy homes. And then, again, back to the earthiness of Roman humour: a fresco from a corridor leading to a toilet, showing the goddess Isis protecting a man while he is relieving himself. “Cacator cave malum,” reads an inscription: “Shitter, beware the evil eye” – you will never be so vulnerable as you are at this moment.

A preserved 2,000-year-old loaf of bread from a Herculaneum bakery

This startling mix of the beautiful and the profane, a juxtaposition of high and low culture, is what makes the remains of Pompeii and Herculaneum so remarkable. The British Museum show may be rooted in domesticity but it also hits wondrous artistic heights. “We have some very beautiful objects here,” says Roberts. “But what we would like is for people to see through the object and view them as possessions, and then think of the person behind those possessions. This is not a history of art show.”

It is in the pots and pans, the jewels and the elegant furniture, the dirty jokes and the outbursts of democratic solidarity, that the spirit of ancient Rome can be found. No place illustrates them like Pompeii. Our knowledge of Roman civilisation would be “hugely” diminished if Vesuvius had kept its cool, says Roberts.

“Of course we would have the theatre at Orange, the Colosseum, the numerous temples. But we wouldn’t have the streets and streets of houses and shops, the gardens, the cupboards full of pots and trinkets. That is what Pompeii and Herculaneum have given us. All the really ordinary stuff. Exceptional, but ordinary.”

‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ is at the British Museum, London, from March 28, sponsored by Goldman Sachs

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