Pompeii: The Exhibition
California Science Center, Los Angeles, California
Date Visited: May 19, 2014
In 2007, I visited Pompeii – the actual city buried by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79CE – and there are few archaeological sites that compare to the majesty of it. Of course, part of that majesty stems from the very disaster that destroyed it. The burial of Pompeii under something like 12 feet of volcanic ash preserved this luxurious metropolis for 2,000 years. Walls and columns are still standing. Bright frescoes are still radiant and vibrant in their colors. Cobblestones still line the streets. You cannot ask for a better trip back in time to Ancient Rome than a visit to Pompeii.
But for those of us who cannot jet across the Atlantic to Italy any time we want, there is the new spectacular exhibit staged by the California Science Center in partnership with Naples National Archaeological Museum, Pompeii: The Exhibition.
Featuring over 150 artifacts direct from Pompeii, the exhibition chronicles daily life in the doomed city. You start with a journey through the home of a wealthy Pompeiian, where among life-sized marble statues of Roman gods and heroes, there are stunning frescoes depicting beloved Roman myths… based on earlier Greek ones, of course.
And you revel in the lap of ancient Roman luxury. Not only did the wealthy homes feature atriums, libraries, entry halls, and private bedrooms, but they also contained large and lush gardens. The second gallery focused on these botanical wonderlands with charming garden sculptures and fountains on display, including an adorable marble carving of four puppies sleeping in a pile together. As I stood there and beheld that piece in particular, I felt a real connection to the people of Pompeii. They loved their pets as much as we do.
The home was a place of luxury but it was also a place of labor. After viewing the items of wealth, it was time to see the items of work. And what surprisingly modern tools they were! Rakes, scythes, shovels, hammers… all were part of the farmer’s arsenal in ancient Pompeii. Baking trays, grill racks, elaborate heaters, and charming wine jugs were all part of the kitchen. In fact, Pompeii’s wine jugs are even fancier than ours!
I was amazed beyond belief at the modernity of the tools used by these ancient workers. Scrape all that rust off, and you could sell any of these items in Home Depot today!
And like any modern, ancient city, Pompeii had its city center with public baths, theaters, and gladiatorial arenas. Rome is well noted for all three of these institutions – public baths were both a social and business occasion, according the wealthy businessmen a chance to close deals, talk politics, or just enjoy a jug or two of wine with their buddies, while making their way from one bath to the next (there were hot baths, tepid baths, cold baths, and saunas that offered massages and skin scraping to remove dirt and oils).
Some of those deals discussed by businessmen in baths may have pertained to trade. Pompeii, sitting close to the coast, was a busy and prominent port city. I was stunned to see a wood and metal anchor on display – looking exactly like one that could come off of a sailing ship in the 1700s!
Anyway, other forms of entertainment included the theater, where Rome continued the Greek tradition of men playing all the parts, and the arena, of course. As the exhibit itself called them, gladiators were ancient Rome’s “rock stars” and watching them bludgeon each other in the large arenas was one of the ancient Roman’s favorite pasttimes. But, again, stunning in its preservation and intricacy was the gladiator armor on display. Beautiful bronze shin guards and helmets with hardly a scratch or a dent… almost like the gladiator himself just stepped away, and he would be back in a minute to get them.
And then there are the private forms of “entertainment.” Well, that might be a stretch, but there is a reason why prostitution is the oldest continuing profession in the world. Pompeii was not without its brothels, and in a side gallery (with plenty of warning labels for the faint of heart) are a few artifacts related to the erotic arts. The ancient world viewed sex and sexual behavior much differently than we do in our Judeo-Christian society. The body and sexual exploration were to be celebrated, and sexual organs were revered for their connection to fertility. The phallus in particular was often featured in art and talismans as a symbol of strength and protection.
So, after taking a quick glimpse at a couple of “doggy style” frescoes that once graced the walls of Pompeii’s brothel, it was onto the main event: the eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 24, 79CE. A small theater offers the viewers a chance to experience the eruption from beginning to end, starting with the earthquakes through the broiling ash clouds and onto the solidification of the ash deposits over the ruins of the city. Once the video ends, the wall lifts and you enter the final gallery…
After experiencing such personal connections with the people of Pompeii, this final gallery is the most visceral and poignant of the exhibition. The victims. Caught forever in their death throes by the volcanic ash. The body casts on display are replicas of the originals (which are in Pompeii) but no less touching. Teenagers. Children. Groups huddled together. They are all here in this final room, and in those moments, you can really feel it. Feel the tragedy behind Vesuvius, and the terrible events of August 24, 79CE.
It is this final room, and the way it brings an end to this incredible exhibition, that I think makes Pompeii: The Exhibition startlingly visceral. It is an emotional exhibit, from beginning to end, and simply astounding in its approach to connecting the visitor to the everyday life of people who lived and died 2,000 years ago.