A trip to Pompeii: Let’s have Helen the director

We're still in thrall to a 2,000-year-old town

Share

You can keep your David Bowie exhibition.

This week sees the opening of “Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum” at the British Museum and I am practically squeaking with excitement.

It’s the first major exhibition of artefacts from these towns to be staged in London in my lifetime, which is astonishing when you think how obsessed we are with these small Italian towns, frozen in time for almost two millennia.

The cultural impact of Pompeii is enormous: everyone from Frankie Howerd to Robert Harris has had a go at it. The eruption of Vesuvius was compelling even as it was happening. As toxic smoke filled the sky around the Bay of Naples, Pliny the Elder sailed towards Herculaneum to try and rescue some friends. He didn’t survive the journey. His nephew, Pliny the Younger (who stayed at home reading Livy, which just goes to prove that bookworms die of old age), described his uninjured body to a friend as looking “more like a man asleep than dead”.

Our fascination with both towns is unsated. It’s surely because they show us history on such a human scale. Pompeii isn’t filled with official statuary and statement buildings but homes and workplaces of ordinary people whose lives remind us of our own. The shabbiness only adds to the pathos.

Pompeii had fallen on hard times. Buildings damaged in the earthquakes which preceded the eruption had often gone unrepaired. It was a town whose glory days were behind it decades before it made history. And the Pompeiians themselves had become a rowdy bunch.

In 59 AD, 20 years before Vesuvius obliterated them, the Pompeiians rioted after a day at the games. So many people from a rival town were killed that Pompeii was banned from holding gladiatorial games for a decade.

The portrait of a baker, Terentius Nero, and his wife is one of the star pieces of the new exhibition. They’re holding writing materials, so you – the viewer – understand that they are literate people, trying to impress you with their highbrow hobbies. It’s like catching a glimpse of a graduation photo; it’s a much more personal memento than, say, an official statue of an emperor.

The casts of a family hiding from the wrath of Vesuvius beneath a staircase can’t help but make us think of our own loved ones: it’s a disaster movie as much as it is a moment in history, and we respond to it accordingly. Rome may be the Eternal City, but it’s Pompeii that we can’t let go.

Mirren on Mendes

At the Empire film awards on Sunday Helen Mirren was accused of calling Sam Mendes sexist because she mentioned that the director cited an all-male list of inspirations from Truffaut to Bergman. Actually, she seemed to be issuing a plea that in five or 10 years’ time, there would be a more balanced gender mix in the film-making world, which is hardly the same as burning your bra and hurling yourself beneath the hooves of a passing horse.

Mirren is simply stating a fact: female film directors are in short supply. Is it too much to hope that she might soon get behind the camera herself?

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Software Development Manager

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Tradewind Recruitment: Humanities Teacher

£120 - £180 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: The Humanities Department of this ...

Tradewind Recruitment: Music Teacher

£120 - £180 per annum: Tradewind Recruitment: Newham Position: Music Start dat...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science teacher

£120 - £150 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: Sutton Position: Science teacher S...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A residential tower block in an area of Southwark with a high concentration of social housing  

We desperately need to solve our housing crisis, but rent controls are not the answer

Mira Bar Hillel
Syriza party leader Alexis Tsipras  

Syriza's victory in Greece might not be the radical revolution you were hoping for

James Bloodworth
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee