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Archive for the ‘pompeii’ Category

Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 6, 2013

I recently spent a very enjoyable day at the British Museum, first delivering a paper at an OCR teachers’ conference, and then going to see the BM’s current major exhibition, Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, which it was designed to tie in with. Well over a hundred very engaged and enthusiastic teachers attended the conference, demonstrating the thriving current interest in Classical subjects at school level, and I’m pleased to say that they seemed to enjoy hearing my thoughts on the disparities in living standards at Pompeii and the tendency for elite houses to be surrounded like islands by smaller houses, shops and workshops. I certainly enjoyed sitting amongst them and hearing Alison Cooley showing the audience what stories the collections of writing tablets from Pompeii and Herculaneum can tell us about the lives and status of their inhabitants, Ray Laurence exploring the question of whether or not carts really made up much of the traffic in Pompeii, and Andrew Wallace-Hadrill sharing some of the important insights into life in Herculaneum which have come out of a project originally designed ‘just’ to conserve the standing remains.

I allowed over two hours in the Pompeii exhibition before I would need to leave to catch my train, Bacchus Vesuvius snakebut in fact there was so much to see that I rather wish I had allowed three. Though I had a fair idea of what the exhibition would contain before I stepped through the doors, and had seen most of it before in books and on websites, I had forgotten just how much more you can get out of looking at even familiar art and artefacts in real life. I spent a great deal of time peering closely at items such as this painting of bread handouts and the full set to which this painting of gamers belongs, noticing details which I had never spotted before; or walking around this sculpture of hunting dogs attacking a stag and the various items of charred wooden furniture to fully experience their effect in three dimensions. I especially enjoyed being able to read tiny painted or inscribed texts for myself, and realised for the first time that while the rest of the famous painting of Bacchus and Vesuvius (right) is in extremely good condition, the head of the snake is considerably worn – presumably because the inhabitants of the house where it was originally set up liked to touch it for luck as they went past. (Yes, snakes were considered lucky in the ancient world). It was also nice to see some recent finds, such as items from the sewer excavated by the Herculaneum Conservation Project.

But although I enjoyed looking at the individual items, I found myself far less convinced by the way they had been put together. The publicity for the exhibition claims that it takes visitors to ‘the heart of people’s lives’ in Pompeii and Herculaneum, by focusing on domestic life. The items are grouped according to the rooms which they might originally have been used or displayed in, and the exhibition space is laid out to resemble the design of a Pompeian house (at least as far as the circular space of the old Round Reading Room allows). This is certainly a nice change from museum exhibitions which focus exclusively on the high art of the political elite, and it is a format which allows plenty of room for relatable everyday items such as oil-lamps, hair-pins, cooking equipment and jars full of ivory tooth-picks.

The problem, though, is that the British Museum’s ‘house’ presents visitors with a kind of pastiche. It contains a medley of items which have actually been drawn from many different houses (and indeed public buildings, bars and streets) in both Pompeii and Herculaneum, which date from different periods and which come from different social contexts. Of course this is how exhibitions work. To really wow visitors, the organisers aim to collect together the most interesting, well-preserved and beautifully-made items from the culture or context which they are concerned with – and the contents of any one individual house from either Pompeii or Herculaneum could not hope to match what can be cherry-picked from multiple different houses on this front. But I felt that putting them together in way which mimicked the experience of moving through a single house implied that they genuinely all belonged together, and robbed visitors of the chance to fully appreciate the range of different living conditions which Pompeii and Herculaneum actually attest.

Meanwhile, the same urge towards the spectacular has meant that in practice the contents of the exhibition reflects above all the lives of the wealthy. Yes, we do encounter freedmen and women, slaves, and people of more ordinary means. One cabinet, for example, displays the fine gold jewellery of the wealthy elite next to the cheaper imitations which most people would have worn instead, so that visitors can see the difference directly for themselves. But the sheer preponderance of marble sculptures, fine wall-paintings, silver tableware and beautifully inlaid furniture, as well as the decision to organise the exhibition according to the layout of an elite house, creates the impression that a ‘typical’ Pompeian or Herculanean lived a life of luxury and splendour.

Having just given a talk earlier in the day about the very different living conditions of the rich and poor in Pompeii, I found this very frustrating, and wished that the exhibition organisers had been more careful about it. I found myself imagining a rather different exhibition, in which the the ‘elite house’ experience had been shrunk down to make space for two more separate exhibition areas fitted alongside it – one showing life in a modest house of only a few rooms, and one going right to the bottom of the social scale to show us life in the back room of a shop or perhaps a poky upstairs apartment. They could even be linked together by a short section of street frontage, with doorways to all three opening off it, since people of very different social status really did live right next door to each other in Roman cities. All of the same items as are in the actual exhibition could still have been included, but dividing them up into different households would make the reality of life in Pompeii and Herculaneum much clearer, and counter the belief that ‘the Romans’ were a single homogeneous group who all thought and lived alike – something which I see all too often in student essays.

For all that, though, the exhibition is clearly incredibly popular. It is already solidly booked out until the end of May, and is obviously attracting a really diverse range of interested visitors. While I was there I saw families, be-suited city workers, people speaking French, Italian, German and all sorts of other languages which I couldn’t identify, and all of them engrossed in the exhibits, pointing things out to one another and exclaiming over them with great interest. The audio guide and app are obviously both a great hit, and of course the exhibition has spurred a whole range of documentaries and events to run alongside it – included the conference I went down to contribute to.

So although I can see room for improvement, I can’t fault the British Museum for connecting with the public, and I take my hat off to them for an exhibition which can only help to boost public interest in the Roman world. If you haven’t caught up with it yourself yet, you’ve got until September 29th to do so – but I recommend you make sure you have booked your tickets by at least the end of August.

Posted in exhibitions, pompeii, reviews, roman art, roman cities, roman history | 4 Comments »

Robert Harris (2003), Pompeii

Posted by weavingsandunpickings on May 21, 2010

I must have bought something in Waterstone’s around the time this book came out, because I remember seeing a pile of free pamphlets containing a sample chapter from it on the counter as I paid for my purchases. (The chapter in question was what I know now to be the book’s third, entitled ‘Hora duodecima‘.) Excited, I picked one up, took it home and read it… and was distinctly underwhelmed. There was nothing particularly stylish about it, the story didn’t grab or excite me, and, most of all, I was annoyed by the following paragraph (p. 56):

“A statue of Egeria, goddess of the water-spring, was set in a niche beside the door. At her feet lay a few stems of withered flowers and some mouldy lumps of bread and fruit – offerings left by pregnant women who believed that Egeria, consort of Numa, the Prince of Peace, would ease their delivery when their time came. Another worthless superstition. A waste of food.”

To me, there are two problems here: 1) anachronistic values and 2) intrusive explanations. On the first, I know that we can only ever see the past through the filter of the present, but if you end up writing fiction which entirely elides all the differences between the two, why bother looking at the past at all? Why not just write fiction set in the present? What Harris has done here is to make the main character of a novel set in an era when everyone worshipped the gods without thinking to question it into a religious cynic. For that to work, there needs to be some reason for it – something special or unusual about the character, such as him being a radical intellectual. I was pretty sure from the sample chapter that there wasn’t any such thing in this case – and now that I have read the rest of the book, I am certain.

Our main man, and the one whose views this paragraph is supposed to reflect, is no Cicero. Rather, he’s a fairly ordinary, practical fellow – an aqueduct engineer, in fact. Just not the sort of person in the ancient world likely to go around judging religious offerings ‘a waste of food’. Of course it makes him more accessible to a modern, secular reader. But wouldn’t it be far more interesting to set modern cynicism aside, and explore the very different mind-set of someone for whom the gods were real and active? We can be cynical as we read it if we want – but why write that into an ancient character? I clung to the vain hope that it might turn out to be the basis for some character development – that Attilius might be forced to change his perspective, or at least get into a confrontation with someone holding different views. But there was no such luck. It was just a modern mind, stuck clumsily into an ancient head.

As for the matter of intrusive explanations, I also now know that explanatory comments much along the lines of “Egeria, consort of Numa, the Prince of Peace” are rife throughout the whole book. Another example which particularly jarred was (p. 120):

“He saw them off from the pomoerium, the sacred boundary just beyond the Vesuvius Gate, kept clear of buildings in honour of the city’s guardian deities.”

This just made me think: well, if you feel you have to insert all that clumsy explanation to convey to your readers what the pomoerium is, why mention it at all in the first place? Why not just say ‘the city-limits’ or ‘the city walls’, which would be just as appropriate without needing an explanation? Or, alternatively, might it even be enjoyable for the reader to encounter terms like this without an explanation, as a signal that they are dealing with a strange and alien world? A clever writer could allow the reader to pick up the meaning of terms like this from context, without needing to ‘gloss’ them – and in fact I think that is part of what many people look for when they pick up a historical novel. Maybe I’m wrong about that, and only find such references annoying because I have the luxury of already knowing the territory. But I’m pretty sure explanations like that would put me right off even if I didn’t.

Anyway, with all that just in the sample chapter, I decided not to bother reading the rest of the book at the time when it originally came out. I’ve come back to it because the rumour-mill reports that Ridley Scott will soon be making it into a TV mini-series – and if I’m going to watch that (which I believe I am!) I’d like to have read the book first. It’s also likely that a lot of my ‘City in the Roman World’ students next year will be watching the TV series, so I’d like to be able to discuss the portrayal of Roman urbanism which it presents with them intelligently.

Reading the book with a close knowledge of Pompeii, I did appreciate the fact that Harris gives enough detail in terms of street directions and descriptions to identify the settings he is using – even when they aren’t actually named. With a map and a couple of books by my side, it didn’t take me long to work out that Popidius / Ampliatus’ house is, very suitably, the House of the Citharist / Lyre Player, which does indeed seem to have been associated with the family of the Popidii. The heart-stoppingly beautiful statue of Apollo after which it is named is actually mentioned in passing on p. 33. And I must admit that I scoffed at the idea of a Roman house having a swimming-pool that could be seen from its atrium (entrance-hall) when I read the description in the book – but to be fair this is actually entirely true for the House of the Citharist. Mind you, I can’t help but point out that the nearby set of baths, where Attilius encounters some of Pompeii’s chief magistrates, were no longer in use at the time of eruption.

Similarly, Africanus’ brothel is the famous lupanar which gives its name to the Vico del Lupanare in Regio VII, while Ampliatus’ baths are the Central Baths, indeed still under construction at the time of the eruption. I was baffled by the reference here to brass ‘handles to flush the latrines’ on p. 153, though. I presume what’s happened here is that Harris read some reference to ‘flush lavatories’ in these baths, but didn’t realise that in a Roman context, this means a row of seats continually flushed out by running water, rather than individual cisterns with release handles as we have today.

Other than that, though, the impressions I’d formed on reading the sample chapter were only confirmed by the rest of the book. I found the characters dull and one-dimensional, the pacing poor, the language unexceptional and the story surprisingly unexciting, given the potential of the setting. Even the details about the houses seemed to me like pedantry. It’s great that Harris has obviously done such extensive research, but it somehow doesn’t seem to have provided fertile ground for his ideas and characters to grow – only constrained him, really. Of course he’d read Pliny’s letters about the eruption, and other such worthy and relevant sources. But I would have liked to see him do something more than just replicating their details with a little extra description and dialogue. That may be ‘accurate’ (if anything about the ancient world ever really can be), but it is also dull.

Harris’s opening quotations from Tom Wolfe, Pliny the Elder and A. Trevor Hodge, and his closing account of the ancient sources which he used, suggest that he wants to present himself as a serious player in the grand tradition of Western literary responses to Pompeii. But for that to work, he not only needs to know his predecessors – he also needs to take us somewhere else; show us something new. For me, this book failed to do that.

Posted in books, classical receptions, pompeii, reviews, roman cities, roman religion | 14 Comments »

 
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