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
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Recruitment Genius: Developer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
Jeremy Corbyn addresses over a thousand supporters at Middlesbrough Town Hall on August 18, 2015  

Thank God we have the right-wing press to tell us what a disaster Jeremy Corbyn as PM would be

Mark Steel
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future