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The Last Days of Pompeii

In 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted, hurling rocks through the rooftops of the surrounding villages and cities, and later spewing forth a rich and lethal flood of ash, fumes, and molten lava. Pompeii, the most famous of the cities at the foot of the mountain, was utterly obliterated, and lost to history for almost two thousand years. Early in the nineteenth century excavators began to unearth the streets, homes, and businesses of Pompeii, many of which had been preserved intact by the hardened volcanic material. And during the 1850s they began to fill the unusual cavities they found in the rock with plaster. When the rock was subsequently chipped away, the forms of men, woman, and animals were exposed, revealing the twisted, horrified positions these individuals had assumed the moment they were engulfed by the relentlessly advancing lava.

It's powerful stuff, and it has captured the imaginations of both children and adults for generations, making Pompeii by some accounts the most visited tourist attraction in Italy--a country that has more than its share. Recently, a few of the artifacts uncovered by the excavations at Pompeii were mounted into a traveling exhibit, along with scale models of villas, audio interpretation, and computer-generated images of both daily life in the city, and the more unusual events that took place on August 24, 79 AD, when all hell broke loose.

The chief drawback of the show, which has been at the Science Museum in St. Paul for months, is the price. They're charging $20 to get in, though the fee also includes entry into the other sections of the museum and use of the audio device. Is it worth it? That depends on how interested you are in volcanoes and daily life in ancient Rome. I would say yes, though I used a museum library pass to shave $8 off the fee.

The show is modest in size, and a number of the artifacts on display are similar to things many of us have seen before--roman coins, amphorae, gold necklaces, funeral urns. The interpretation is clear but hardly brilliant, and anyone who studied Roman history in college will probably be thinking from time to time: "The Romans were far more interesting and idiosyncratic than this," but without quite remembering how. For example, the commentary about Roman burial practices along the roads leading into Pompeii seems to belittle the rituals and beliefs of the time, emphasizing the status-seeking motives of the survivors rather than their devotion to their ancestors, whom they considered minor gods deserving of gifts and veneration. Even this sort of mental jog is of value, however, and as you move through the museum the small but select exhibits about laundry, cooking, commerce, gaming, and other aspects of daily life contribute to a full-blown picture of a foreign, yet strangely familiar way of life.

The cooking and eating habits of the citizens of Pompeii are among the more interesting of the subjects covered by the exhibit. You can see carbonized walnuts and fava beans, baked bread that has somehow been preserved by the disaster( a little on the burnt side, to be sure), and handy little clay firepits with "burners" on three sides, under which the burning coals could be positioned once the fire had reached the desired degree of heat. Though the odiferous substance itself is not on display, the fish-paste called garum (a complicated mixture of fermented tuna and anchovy innards) is discussed at length. It was the salsa of Pompeii--fishy, salty, and no doubt very strange-tasting to us (though tapenade may harbor a dim modern echo.)

I found it interesting to learn that many homes in Pompeii did not have kitchens. People ate and imbibed on the run at fast-food outlets located throughout the city, while waiting to be invited to banquets at the homes of their wealthy friends. At such banquets guests ate while reclining--three to a couch. The less esteemed guests had to be content to sit on chairs at the far end of the table. The furniture in the homes of Pompeii was scanty in any case, and was often moved from room to room as required by the occasion. (That's a habit I like.)

There were very few dioramas or models depicting city streets, which surprised me, but it seems that in ancient times greenery was reserved for the interior courtyards of private dwellings. Among the statuary included in the exhibit two pieces stand out. One is a statue of one of the Muses that looks more Mexican than Roman--blocky yet powerful and handsome. I've never seen anything like it. And there are also two elegant ten-foot marble columns with exquisite floral patterns running up the sides. One case holds a display of small marble garden ornaments each of which depicts an animal tearing a smaller animal to shreds. (I prefer the plaster bunny that sits under the euonymus bush in my back yard.)

Even more striking are the frescoes that have somehow been removed and transported here to Saint Paul. We've seen these images before, or others like them, on the covers of paperback books containing the poems of Catullus or the letters of Seneca, but it's something else again to see them in the flesh. Though the tales being depicted are sometimes bizarre, the people look just like us! And the animals and plants in the background look attractive, suggesting that although the Roman's were well aware that nature could be brutal, they also considered it to be a sort of garden paradise.

Nature's brutality is on full display in the last room of the exhibit. This darkened room contains a few of the plaster casts that have been made of the victims of the eruption. The casts are rough and white, like a George Segal imitation of Rodin's bronze representation of Balzac. But the positions are chilling, to say the least. One man holds a cloth to his face, another sits huddled in a corner with his legs pulled up under him. One man is in shackles. And one of the casts is of a couple with arms outstretched around one another.

The casts sit in beds of reddish pumice, and they are powerful examples of an art that is not art. We are moved by them, because without knowing anything about these women and men (there are a few animals too) we see and feel the pathos of the final moments they experienced before death overtook them. In their gestures, their anonymity, and their realness, they convey a depth of humanity that art seldom approaches.

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