Volcanic Disruption

A Day in Pompeii is a jarring look at a 2,000-year-old catastrophe


ompeii is the disaster-grabber of all time. How old were you when that terrible story first drew you in? I was 8, I think, and Pompeii still grips my imagination. 

For all of us who can’t shake this fascination, A Day in Pompeii, now at Cincinnati Museum Center at Union Terminal, is a must. Even those who can take Pompeii or leave it are likely to enjoy a visit.

The dreadful day in Pompeii happened in 79 A.D. when the neighboring volcano shook itself awake. For 24 hours, from mid-afternoon on Aug. 24 until mid-afternoon Aug. 25, it rained destruction on the area and its people, who didn’t even have a word for volcano. Vesuvius’s fertile slopes raised good grapes and that seemed enough to know about the soon-to-erupt mountain. The eruption so buried Pompeii and the neighboring city of Herculaneum that both were forgotten for centuries. Modern archeology has its roots in the rediscovery of the cities in the 18th century and the astonishing story of a society stopped in its tracks began to unfold.

While earlier venues for this exhibition chose to focus on the horrors of death by lava, exemplified by body casts of suffocated people and animals, the Museum Center presentation shows those elements deep in the exhibition, by which time you know something about how these people lived and what had been lost. It is an effective arrangement of material. New to the exhibition for the Cincinnati showing is a section centered on current excavations at Pompeii by the University of Cincinnati’s Archaeological Research Project, headed by Steven Ellis, who will speak about the work in a free lecture at the Museum Center at 7:30 p.m. May 17.    

As in last year’s Cleopatra: The Search for the Last Queen of Egypt, the Museum has chosen to darken the galleries and focus light on the objects themselves, producing an effect of looking back in time. Wall panels are frequent and informative and an audio tour ($4; $3 for museum members) also is available. It has two tracks, one for adults and one for children, the museum recognizing the pull this show will have for youngsters. 

The exhibition’s tone is set immediately by a three-and-a-half-foot tall bronze figure of Bacchus, poised on a pedestal in the opening gallery, preparing us for a resort town that knew how to have fun. Pompeii was also a port, an agricultural center and a busy, functioning community of about 20,000 people, but its role as a vacation spot was paramount. Bacchus turns up frequently throughout the show, in frescoes and as a sculpted figure, often accompanied by his classically drunken companion, Silenus. The forthright Roman art style is displayed in sculpture and in fresco fragments of remarkably fresh color. Frequently these works show Bacchus and Silenus at their accustomed fun and games. Residents practiced fun and games, as well: Dice are displayed, including a loaded pair. 

Much stayed in tact after the cataclysm, but it remained buried and unknown for centuries. An ironic note is a display of handsome urns meant for the ashes of corpses, cremation being commonplace in the culture before Vesuvius cremated the towns. Graffiti also survived and is reproduced here, a reminder that the term itself is Italian (it means “scratched”).

A display of scales and measures indicates these were people doing business, carrying out transactions that required accurate knowledge of what was in hand. Remnants of commercial ovens suggest that bakeries were frequent and well patronized. There is even, amazingly, a 2,000-year-old carbonized loaf of bread.

Perhaps the most evocative elements are those that give a sense of the furniture and the surroundings in which these people lived. There’s a couch meant to accommodate three reclining people for meals and a reconstructed bed from Herculaneum. The exhibition as a whole has more reproductions than most serious shows, no doubt because of the fragility of the materials. It’s rare for the original objects here to leave Italy at all. 

A gallery well into the show gives a sense of the ease and luxury that marked some of Pompeii’s dwellings. A large fresco portraying a garden, thought to have lined one side of an outdoor dining room, is shown behind two slender marble columns, strands of ivy carved around their surfaces and one topped by that topper, Silenus. Nearby are two other columns, one holding a Venus casually posed and the other supporting a muse of lyric poetry. Several figures of animals, in marble, have none of the reserved qualities of Venus and the muse; they are attacking one another. Still, it’s possible to extrapolate from these assembled objects a delightful space in which to pass the time of day, before the eruption changed all that.

We can learn much from the individual displays, like how bathhouses functioned a good deal like our gyms, for instance, as well as how urine can be used to clean clothes (and why). The upper class was given to conspicuous consumption, one cannot help but think looking at a case containing bracelets, arm bands and other jewelry, all in gorgeous gold. 

The body casts are eloquent testimonies to the disaster. A 19th century archeologist, discovering voids containing bones in the hardened ash, filled the cavities with plaster and chipped away the enclosing material to find figures desperately attempting to protect themselves from the onslaught. Twelve such resin body casts — of people, a dog and a pig — appear in the exhibition. 

Special programs in conjunction with the show include Pompeii Spring Break Camp for children aged 7-12 (March 26-30). Gallery discussions with U.C. Department of Classics graduate students take place from 1-3 p.m. each Saturday through May 26.

A DAY IN POMPEII is on view at the Cincinnati Museum Center through Aug. 12.

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