Sunday, 28 April 2013

Pestles and Mortalities: Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Musem

This post came to me in the aftermath of a host of sensory experiences; the scent of fresh garlicky flavours being pounded out by a granite pestle and mortar, whilst the images of an emotionally exhausting exhibition were still pricking at my eyelids. Though these two seem far apart the connections, inevitably, were there.

The Pompeii exhibition at the British Museum has taken Roman everyday life and made it seem as fresh and modern as if they were walking down the streets now, today, tomorrow. After the pomp and splendour of Hadrian, here the curators have instead focused on living arrangements, family life, relaxation, domestic objects and simply allow us explore what it was like to live in a provincial Roman town. What comes across primarily is the sheer sense of fun and humour; the phallic lamps and good luck charms, playful graffiti and garden ornaments. They are, to modern minds, as unsubtle as they are beautifully crafted.

We know that they inhabited a totally different world, had an outlook as alien as any historic civilisation and were responsible for barbaric acts all over their massive empire, yet there is something inherently familiar in this collection of objects. You cannot escape the tavern, the bread from the bakery, the hot food seller, or the extended family with the baby in the crib and the bowl of fresh figs in the kitchen. The domestic life of these far off people are essentially us.

Which makes their death in AD79 as shocking as any subsequent natural disaster. It is hard to believe an entire town or two could be swept away and eventually forgotten, apart from in a few place names. As we were frequently reminded, the devastation then has ensured eternal life for the inhabitants and their belongings. Not just dead jewellery and pottery, but their living expressions, emotions and 'being caught in the moment'.

What surprised me was the memento mori with which these people surrounded themselves, though in a town of young people (hardly anyone there was over the age of 60), death would have been a common occurrence. In the Renaissance these symbols existed to remind people that they would die and were an exhortation not to sin, but in Pompeii these Roman skeletons were there as a reminder to live life to the full. They were on a dining table as well as under it; a simple monochrome mosaic with a striking representation of a skeleton carrying two jugs of wine was an original departure from the usual drunk-staggering Bacchus. They didn't expect to have their lives so dramatically curtailed, but the civilisation that existed was incredibly aware of the flimsy hold of mortality.

It is this mortality of the everyday which connects us with the wealthy widow, the kitchen slave and the plaster cast family sheltering in the alcove. As I prepared my pesto with pine nuts, basil, olive oil  to eat with pasta and home made bread, you realise that the reason tears fall for these long dead people and their pets is simply because the basic needs of humanity have not changed. To eat, drink and live well in comfortable homes, surrounded by family and friends is all you require.

This will remain one of my favourite exhibitions, just as my visit to Pompeii and the surrounding area will stay with me. Until I go there again, this exhibition is the next best thing - as is the pesto.

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