British Museum, London

Charles Darwent on art: Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum - The day that death hung on the breeze

5.00

As Vesuvius erupted, a strong easterly condemned two towns to extinction – and immortality – as an outstanding exhibition recreating Roman life shows

At some time in the second half of AD79 – accounts differ as to date – Mount Vesuvius erupted in a 30-kilometre-high jet of mud and gas. As it cooled, the superheated cloud collapsed. It fell first as a pall of ash on the town of Nuceria Alfaterna, killing her population outright. Hours later, Salemum and her people were buried in a surge of roiling ooze.

Of course, this is not quite right. Vesuvius did erupt in AD79, and two Roman towns were wiped out: they were called Pompeii and Herculaneum. But it could easily have been otherwise. Had the winds been from the west that day, Nuceria and Salemum would have been buried instead. Coach parties would now fill their ossified streets, and the British Museum's new show would have a different name.

Does this matter? To an extent it does. In destroying, Vesuvius preserved. Where the opera magna of Rome – the arenas and bridges and aqueducts – have fairly often survived, the houses and shops of ordinary Romans have not. Visit Nocera, the modern Nuceria, and you will find a shopping mall, not a forum. Herculaneum, Pompeii and their satellites – Stabiae and Oplontis, forgotten names – provide pretty well the only coherent glimpse we have of everyday Roman life.

Given the size of the sample, that glimpse is necessarily partial. To derive all Rome from it is risky: if Nuceria, a larger and more pretentious town, had been buried, we might – who knows? – have a different view. But then the hold that Vesuvius has over us is less to do with Rome than with ourselves.

As you go into Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum, you pass a film. This spells out both the show's story and its relevance. Vesuvius was the tsunami of its day, says the narrator, the atom bomb. From the florid tastes of Pompeii, we can derive the showiness of modern Italy. The domestic setting of the exhibition – we walk through it as through a provincial Roman townhouse, atrium via cubiculum to hortus – "prompts us to make comparisons with our own". Pompeii is us.

Well, maybe, although I am willing to bet that none of you has a statue of Pan shagging a goat in your garden. Whoever owned the Villa of the Papyri in Herculaneum did, and an astonishing object it is. The marble hair of the goat and goat-god is of a fineness that hadn't been seen since Athens and wouldn't be again until the Renaissance. The group's composition and animation are immensely sophisticated – by turns tender, erotic and funny.

This last view was not shared by the King of Naples, who was present when the sculpture was chipped from the muck that had buried it 1,700 years before. At first, the "disreputable object of pagan licentiousness" was locked in a royal cupboard. From 1823, it was shown in the Secret Cabinet of the Royal Bourbon Museum, open to those whose "mature age and proven morality" made them proof against its horrors. It stayed there until 12 years ago.

In our more enlightened day, you can see this act of marbled bestiality at the BM no matter how young and immoral you are. But can you understand it? The fact that we are cool about showing interspecies sex suggests that we are kin to the Romans, who clearly were. But this is to impose our modernity on theirs. Owning a bronze wind-chime, a tintinnabulum, in the form of a penis with bells, may seem outré or funny or embarrassing to us. But to the Pompeiian whose doorway it stood in, who can say?

The Greek gods were still worshipped in Campania back then, even if Dionysius had been renamed Bacchus. He's everywhere in this show – in the oil lamp with the massive dong, in the wine flasks, the ointment jars, the amazing statue of a drunken Hercules from the House of the Stags at Herculaneum. He's there most literally in the fresco from a lararium, an altar to the household gods from the House of the Centenary in Pompeii. Bacchus, clothed in grapes, stands on the fertile slopes which made the region famous for its wine. When a molten tide rolled down those slopes in AD79 – the mountain is Vesuvius – they made it famous for death.

That, though, is to start from the finish. This is a wonderful show of wonderful things, unmissable. But pitching it as a prequel to today is a mistake. The eruption of Vesuvius allows us to stand in a pair of Roman towns two millennia after they died. But you can only excavate those towns if you chip away 2,000 years of history.

 

To 29 Sep (020-7323 8181)

Critic's Choice

Fabrice Hyber creates art from all manner of tactile materials: expect mounds of salt, blocks of lipstick, figures made of vegetables, and novel interpretations of a not-so-hot topic, the weather. Raw Materials is at Newcastle's Baltic (to 30 Jun). For a classic revelation, catch Barocci: Brilliance and Grace at the National Gallery until 19 May.

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'