Went off to the British Museum’s ‘Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum’ yesterday, and it is, as my friend said, simply stunning.
It’s not an exhibition, it’s a drama. And like the best drama, a disarming beginning, full of sub-plots, surprises, comedy, sex, and, even though we know what’s coming, even if we’ve never read the Younger Pliny’s description of watching the disaster from across the Bay of Naples, a terribly tragic ending.
What the BM’s done is transform the inside of the old Reading Room in the middle of the Atrium into rooms of a house in Herculaneum, from the street, through the living rooms, bedrooms, kitchen, the garden, even the loo. It begins with the famous ‘Cave Canem’ mosaic of the snarling guard dog with it’s collar. But there too, is the real dog; caught choking in the storm of ash. And you realise suddenly, that mosaic could be a photo from an album.
Though, even in Notting Hill, not many people display wall-size pornographic pictures of copulation in positions you might not find even in The Joy of Sex in their bedrooms without raising an eyebrow or two.
Nor have a statue of Pan screwing a female (and apparently happy) goat on their patios. That, in 2013, we leave downloaded on our laptops or iPads. The Romans of Pompeii and Herculaneum were decidedly less furtive.
And visitors who ask if they can use the loo before dinner, might, even in my part of London, be a little bit taken aback if I had a very realistic painting of a squatting naked man next to the lavatory with the words "Beware the Evil Eye on you while you shit" below it.
But it’s some of the little, more ordinary things that are striking. From a wooden cradle that might have come from Habitat or Heal’s, to, in a kitchen which was startlingly small—of the cramped dimensions one has come to expect in even large-ish flats (and no doubt similarly expensive to the house in Herculaneum that’s the model for the BM’s exhibition) in this part of London—a beautifully crafted colander.
One of the odd surprises, in fact, is to discover how small, and often delicate, so many domestic objects were. That colander seems barely larger enough to wash more than a handful of spinach. Most of the oil lamps can barely have delivered the light of a tea candle. Pots and pans barely big enough to boil a couple of handfuls of beans.
The colander may seem an odd object to find as striking as a thick 600 gm gold bracelet, but it was smaller and shallower than the stainless steel one in my kitchen; and the drainage holes were tiny, no larger than pin-pricks, and arranged in a much more complex and beautiful petal pattern. Now there, the BM shop missed a trick: I’d have bought a replica of that, just for the sake of seeing such elegance in such an ordinary object.
The long, thin bronze lamp stand from the Roman living room? I’ve got one of those anyway. Well, from a few yards away, I could have been looking at the tall slim black halogen lamp in my living room. . .
And there are even the equivalent of the photos my grandmother kept. Two fresco portraits of teenage boys proudly holding scrolls. It’s impossible not to imagine them—though we can’t know this—being commissioned by proud parents the day after they’d won a school prize. Or, perhaps, a proud celebration of being (like me) the first in the family to graduate from ‘college’ as my granny called it.
And then there are the elements of public life. The famous cartoons on the wall of a bar of the dice players accusing one another of cheating, one calling the other ‘You cocksucker’ and the barman telling them if they want to fight they’d better go outside. . .Somehow very, very familiar to someone who’s lived near a small club most of my time in London and has heard and seen just that sort of row at 2 or 3 am at least once a fortnight for years and years . . .
Or, if you live in a somewhat more suburban area, there’s the little plaque that must be a relic of a neighbourly dispute, and is replicated numerous times in rows over too high Leylandii hedges and encroaching fences. One one side “From here, this belongs to so-and-so” and the other “This is all mine.”
And the end that, like the end of a stage tragedy that sends you away shocked and silent and very thoughtful about mortality?
It’s a small 'stage' containing the plaster casts of a family. A man, woman and two young children caught at the very instant they died, cowering in fear in a small alcove in their home hoping for survival in the pitch dark. Perhaps with a tiny flame, no greater than that from a match, from one of those small pottery oil lamps flickering as their last and only comfort except for each hugging one of their children. Just, perhaps as an Oklahoman might in a tornado, or as a friend of mine did in rocket attacks in a war.
The parents are falling backwards. The younger child has died quickly, perhaps having tried to run from the father in panic in the last moments, and lies on the floor. The other child is trying to jump from her falling mother’s lap. She was found having died a second later desperately scrabbling at the wall trying to get out. It is a horrific tableau.
The more so, because we know now that child would have been put to bed once in a cradle like the one we’ve seen, by the light of a pottery oil lamp like many we’ve looked at. Though perhaps not the one of Bacchus with the flame coming from the end of a fat erect penis, which perhaps was a night light her parents kept by their bed.
She might have been comforted one night after being woken up frightened by the shouting of two drunken men in the street. Or helped a kitchen slave wash lettuce in that colander. Perhaps had gone every morning with another slave to buy a loaf like the one we’ve seen, baked ready with his name on it for collection, from the bakery of the couple whose portraits we’ve looked at.
She probably watched her mother do her makeup in the mornings from the array of cosmetic bottles, perhaps laid out on the blackened, but intact, chest of drawers. Or admired her jewellery, the thin delicate necklaces or ear rings. While putting on a pretty charm bracelet made of small stones on string of her own, like any child.
But, of course, for all that we mourn ordinary lives destroyed, then as now, other things have not changed either. The Romans had their bloody gladiatorial battles as we have our wars, and no doubt got equal vicarious satisfaction in the arena as some of us do from those Terminator films.
And they could not have their elegant and beautifully delicate bronze and marble statues around the house without slaves who often lived short and miserable lives, and who, mostly are hidden from us now. As we cannot have our decorative bits and pieces around us without workers in Bangladeshi factories and shanty towns, as disastrously collapsible as many of the equivalent Roman tenements in fact were.