Friday, September 14, 2012

Pompeii Profound

The volcanic ash and debris that 2,000 years ago destroyed the Roman city of Pompeii is also the reason it can be brought back to ‘life’. And, it is being brought back to life in a terrific new exhibit at Denver’s Museum of Nature and Science.

A Day in Pompeii, which opens today, features 250 artifacts and some excellent computer-generated videos which really help take us back to 79 AD. On August 24 of that year Mt. Vesuvius erupted and in twenty-four hours had destroyed the town, covering it in volcanic ash and debris. But it was that detritus that also preserved the artifacts – in essence freezing that moment in time in the 1st century Roman Empire - that now make up the exhibit.

These artifacts include furniture and other household goods – including portable stoves, statuary, jewelry coins, gladiator armor, even a loaf of carbonized bread. But I particularly liked the frescos. Rich and colorful, they are magnificent to look at and in one case possibly deserving of an R rating.

As you wander the galleries it is easy to get a vivid picture of life of ordinary people in ordinary – though certainly in some cases wealthy – households. The artifacts do that but the computer-generated videos help. One takes you through a ‘typical’ Pompeian house. You move through the rooms as if you were actually walking through them. Another takes you through a garden, which was also a typical component of Pompeian houses. Gardens were important and considered living areas of the house.

Part of the exhibit is devoted to religion and the gods worshiped by Romans. The Romans borrowed most of their gods from the Greeks, usually renaming them. One in particular was important to Pompeii: Bacchus, the God of Wine. The area around Pompeii was an important wine grape growing region and wine was important. There is one statue of Bacchus in the exhibit that I particularly like. His head is wreathed in grape leaves and he holds a wine cup in his hand. Bacchus is the Greek God Dionysus. Denis, or Dennis, is derived from Dionysus. Enough said.

The last galleries of the exhibition are perhaps the most dramatic. They deal with cataclysmic eruption that destroyed the city. Another computer-generated video takes us quite vividly through the twenty-four hours of the eruption. One literally watches the city being bombarded by the ash and debris and destroyed.

The last gallery features the body casts of those, including animals, which did not escape the volcano: A slave with shackles still attached to his ankles; two women clutching at one another; a man trying to hide his face in his knees; a man trying to crawl on a staircase. These may be the most moving parts of the exhibit.

As the ash and debris washed over people it froze the moment of their death. It eventually hardened, preserving inside now hardened stone, etching a mirror image, like a death mask, of the bodies that had been trapped. The casts were made by injecting plaster into the casings, letting it harden and then chipping away the outer shell. What remains is an all too vivid portrayal of the dying as they writhe and reach trying to protect themselves or escape. It is the most moving part of the exhibition.

The destroyed Pompeii was not discovered until 1748 and it is the excavation over the years that have provided these extremely well-preserved artifacts. Pompeii is today a United Nations World Heritage site.

The exhibition runs daily from today until January 13. More information at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

The Getty is also showing a Pompeii exhibition. Get your Pompeii on.