A fresco from the House of the Centenary in Pompeii shows the god of wine, Bacchus, standing at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Bacchus is covered, neck to ankles, in bunches of red grapes: he embodies the richness of the region’s wines. The delicate and cheerful fresco – decorated with snakes, plants, and songbirds – is a tribute to Vesuvius’ prosperous vineyards, nourished by volcanic soil. It’s really beautiful: soft brushstrokes and plenty of colour, a noble and youthful deity, a hazy, dreamy landscape. There is no sense in the fresco that Mount Vesuvius would one day lead to the city’s complete destruction and the death of thousands of its townspeople in 79 AD.
The fresco is part of the Ashmolean’s new exhibition, Last Supper in Pompeii, curated by Paul Roberts. The enticing title doesn’t do justice, however, to the breadth of the collection: 400 objects from around the Roman world and beyond, covering centuries, showcasing the Romans’ relationship to food and drink. There are artefacts from Etruria and Ancient Greece, exploring the origin of Roman dining culture, and a significant amount of the exhibition is dedicated to Roman Britain, that far-flung corner of the empire. The collection includes the UK’s largest ever display of carbonised foodstuffs, including figs, dates, almonds, and pine nuts from the funeral of a young woman in Southwark, and cockroach eggs from a baker’s oven in London (these preserved thanks to the fires that Queen Boudicca set upon the capital).
The exhibition’s main attractions, however, are obviously the wonders of Pompeii, some on display in the UK for the first time ever. Last Supper in Pompeii displays several iconic artefacts – classics students at Oxford will recognise a few frescos from Mods, including ‘Europa and the Bull’’ from the House of Jason and the ‘Bread Dole’ from the House of the Baker. Food was far from a chore for the Romans, and perfectly preserved pieces speak to the skill and whimsy of Roman art inspired by food: a mosaic bursting with sea-life, from the House of the Geometric Mosaics; a life-size fresco of an abundant garden, from the House of the Golden Bracelet; a painting of a cockerel pecking at pomegranates; a mosaic of a skeleton, with a jug of wine in each hand.
The artefacts speak not just for themselves, but also give an insight into the life and characters of their owners: take the House of Aulus Umbiricus Scaurus, for example. Scaurus had made his fortune in garum, a fermented fish sauce that was the go-to condiment for Roman dishes. Scaurus is proud of his fortune and of its origins, and had commissioned a mosaic showing bottles of garum, and his name in large letters. The contents of Pompeii’s latrines and drains are preserved and displayed, showing that it’s not just artwork and décor that gives an insight into the private lives and diets of Pompeii’s inhabitants. Surprisingly, these contents speak to the rich and nutritious diet enjoyed by Pompeiians of all social classes: fish bones, fig seeds, cherry stones, apple pips, blackbird bones, and bones of dormice, a Roman delicacy. It’s always fun to know what people ate and drank, and Last Supper in Pompeii delivers.
It’s pleasing to see an exhibition that celebrates the life and joy of Pompeii. The destruction of the city is not ignored: visitors can see the plaster cast of a pig killed in the eruption, as well as the Lady of Oplontis, who met the same end. Unlike most Pompeiian victims, whose final moments are forever frozen in plaster, the Lady of Oplontis was captured in resin. The translucent quality of the resin shows her in greater detail, with her teeth and expression visible, and also means that she is tougher and less susceptible to breakage – a perfect candidate for the thousand-mile trip to Oxford. There’s pathos too in the small details of quotidian life: a loaf of bread, baked one morning two thousand years ago, never to be eaten. But the focus of Last Supper in Pompeii is decidedly jubilant, and more than a little decadent. The curators have included video reconstructions of a Roman triclinium (dining room) and a garden, which spark envy for the Pompeiians, not pity. Last Supper in Pompeii shows us that we needn’t be torn over which way to view Pompeii, as either a tragedy, or a feast: they are one and the same.
Last Supper in Pompeii is at the Ashmolean until the 12th of January. Entry is free with a bod card.