As you enter the British Museum’s reconstituted Reading Room, you are immediately presented with what this exhibition is all about: the quotidian. That is to use the term in its most literal sense. For all its devastation, the eruption of Vesuvias in A.D. 79 immaculately preserved snapshots of everyday Roman life.
The range of exhibits is impressive, but what makes this exhibition unique is the juxtaposition of everyday objects (furniture, cooking implements), ‘organic matter’ (food, animals, people) and art. Books and exhibitions centred around Rome often concentrate on art over life, or life over art. This exhibition successfully interweaves the two; still life frescos of food are situated next to carbonised loaves of bread, and guard dog mosaics are exhibited beside the remains of an actual guard dog.
In keeping with this synthesis of art and life, the various rooms of the exhibition mimic the rooms of a Roman villa. So the lights dim as you enter the ‘cubiculum’ to convey the lack of natural light in Roman bedrooms; the ‘hortus’ is accompanied by birdsong; and the ‘atrium’ contains an ‘impluvium’ (though the water isn’t real, as the mother of a child who fell in discovered to her relief). Thankfully, though, there is no compromise on what, for me, was the main attraction: the art of these two Roman towns.
In ancient times, houses were decorated by painting directly onto the walls. Because these frescos were an inextricable part of the house, when the fabric of the building perished, so too did the frescos, leaving a lamentably small proportion of painted scenes from antiquity. The preserved villa walls of Pompeii are a satisfying exception.
And what a selection the British Museum has! The infamous erotic frescos include a much-overlooked painting where a man teaches his lover how to play the lyre. There is a spectacular full-size mock-up of the House of the Golden Bracelet’s garden room – a paradigm of Second style trompe l’oeil, peppered with birds and foliage. My favourite is the quasi-Orientalising lararium fresco from the House of Iucundus, which features Dionysus sauntering down the slopes of a still intact Vesuvius. The looming presence of the volcano is never far away, and the exhibition ends with several corpse casts. The most sensational of these was fashioned by pouring epoxy resin into the cavity left behind in the volcanic ash by the decomposing body.
Still, the exhibition is not without its flaws. Those exquisitely haunting bodies, for example, are tucked away in corners and under sloping rooflines. I realise this is an accurate representation of how they perished – cramped and cowering in their houses – but this section would benefit by being viewable in the round, just like the Nereids in Gallery 17. Even so, I cannot recommend the experience enough. One warning: cave capram. Pan’s bestiality is not for the faint-hearted.