Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum — how the title of this major exhibition was agonised over at the British Museum
By Rosa Maria Letts*
Life, life and life. The current exhibition at the British Museum is entitled Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, and I remember well that on the day the museum team in charge of the material and press presentation of the exhibition advised the curator Paul Roberts of the choice of title, he was rather upset. We were having dinner together and I soon learnt that at that time he could not reconcile himself to the idea of having to include death in the title.
As it turned out and as Paul feels now, the title is appropriate, and very attractive to the public – which is going to the exhibition in droves – because it encapsulates the whole cycle of life of the two buried towns, so suddenly brought to a halt by a tragic natural event. But I understand what Paul must have felt on that day when the title was chosen, knowing his whole philosophy and approach to this subject which he had for many years made central to his studies and interest in his discipline of archaeology.
For Paul Roberts had been investigating, deducing, studying and recreating the life – yes, the life –of those Pompeiians, the life they had lived which such gusto and joy, in the embrace of sun and nature, of light and starry nights, and dwelling in houses opened to the sky centred on interior gardens full of plants and herbs, but also of fountains and sculptures, statues and garden ornaments – not gnomes but oscilla, i.e. sculpted roundels in marble or stone. The oscilla were suspended between columns, which surrounded those gardens, against walls frescoed with the most beautiful flowers and shrubs and birds of all types glorying in the most beautiful colours.
This is what the curator of this superb exhibition wanted to show. He has been able to convey to all those who walk in wonder inside this mirror held high 2, 000 years later to show, reflected in it, a life worth living. To this realistic description of how people had lived in Pompeii and Herculaneum in those years, Paul has been able to add the love and understanding which he developed through his researches, perhaps as much as any other scholar has done. And so we are able to enter the house of one of these “common” Romans (Ill.1) through their atrium open to the sky (Ill.2), their triclinium (dining room), their cubicula (bed rooms), their gardens(Ill.3) and kitchen and to see the objects they had lovingly placed there (Ill.4) to admire, and at times to show off to their friends and neighbours. This would have been particularly enjoyable if they were libertis –freed slaves – who must have waited a long while to do it, but finally…….they could!
The curator/narrator of their story has done his work with great devotion to and understanding of his subject, reverently one could say.
This was the way things were before the terrible day when Vesuvius awakened after a millennium of silence and destroyed this whole way of life, the life Dr Roberts had fallen in love with. No wonder he initially shrank from mentioning its demise in the exhibition title. But in the ashes of that death, life was to be preserved for ever, and in a form which enables Paul Roberts to tell us so much of its detail.
Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum is at the British Museum until Sept 29 2013.
Paul Roberts will be with the Accademmia Italia Club on May 17 at 6.30pm to tell us about “Life and Love under the Shadow of Vesuvius.”Do come and listen to him. The event is open to the public and the venue is the Polish Club, 55 Exhibition Road, London SW7. Event information from Artstur, email firstname.lastname@example.org
*Dr Letts, an art historian, is a founder of Artstur. Artstur is a membership organisation dedicated to the promotion of Italian art and culture and is among the leading providers of art tours to cities in Italy and elsewhere in Europe.