Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano

Exhibit brings an ancient city to life
June 23, 2015 Updated: June 25, 2015

TORONTO—In 79 A.D. Mount Vesuvius erupted violently, burying Pompeii and its inhabitants under a thick layer of ash and debris. Within three days, the prosperous Roman city and its inhabitants vanished from the face of the earth—fated to be mostly forgotten for more than 1,600 years.

Today, Pompeii has become the world’s largest archaeological and excavation site, unveiling a brief glimpse into the Roman civilization that built it and the people who inhabited it.

From a bowl of figs ready to be eaten to half a loaf of bread, the most minute details of the lives of Pompeii’s inhabitants were preserved under the mounds of ash and pumice, along with priceless artistic treasures that shed insight into a rich cultural legacy.

The volcano preserved a wide variety of lifestyles, from the blacksmith’s shop to graffiti on walls, to blunt advertisements announcing gladiator fights.

One such treasure is a large bronze statue of a young woman, highly refined, decorated with copper and silver, eyes inlaid with bone and coloured glass. It is one of the few bronze Roman statues that survived following the fall of Roman Empire, when many such works were melted down for the bronze that could be used for other functions, such as weaponry.

There are many more fine portraits—paintings, mosaics, and statues alike—of wealthy Romans, heroes, and mythological beings. Some are impeccably preserved with their lustre intact.

These are just some of the spectacular artifacts on display at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in a new exhibition titled “Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano.”

Frozen in Time

Millions of people visit Pompeii every year to gain an insight into a once-prosperous city that has become one of the most vivid museums of ancient Roman life.

Yet it is not only the lives of the rich that Pompeii reveals. Indiscriminate in its destruction, the volcano preserved a wide variety of lifestyles, from the blacksmith’s shop to graffiti on walls, to blunt advertisements announcing gladiator fights.

One such graffiti of a gladiator fight etched on a tomb looks like it could have been made today. Walking through the exhibit, one gets the feeling that the objects have been frozen in time and almost seem to have been in use just yesterday.

There are silver spoons for tableware, drinking glasses you could easily find in a store today, fine jewels, and a protective amulet that young people wore until they were of age.

The exhibit also provides some interactive opportunities. Visitors can take pictures dressed in togas—one is provided for a child and one for an adult. Children can play in the replica of a marketplace where crab, fruit, and vegetables hang on display and in baskets. There are also brief tours of Pompeii through an interactive photo gallery.

Vivid Picture of a Tragedy

The exhibit reminds us that despite the joy that the discovery of ancient life brings—in both its relevance and distinctiveness—Pompeii was nonetheless the site of a natural disaster that killed its people overnight.

Covered by layers of ash and pumice, many of the shapes of the people were preserved as they were when they died. Archaeologists in the 19th century had the idea of filling the voids left by their bodies with plaster to preserve the positions the people were in at the moment of death.

Copies of these plaster remains were made and brought to Toronto for the ROM exhibition. Although plaster figures, they are nonetheless exceedingly realistic, painting a vivid picture of a tragedy. There are bodies of individuals, those of entire families, and even that of a guardian dog.

One cannot help but marvel at the splendour of this ancient civilization that had flowing water to fill its fountains and baths, paved roads, and theatres. Yet as we approach one of the last rooms of the exhibit, where the plaster casts of the victims frozen in the last moments of their lives lie, the feeling turns to one of sadness. What story is Pompeii telling us today? What can the people of Pompeii teach us almost 2,000 years later?

In a press release, ROM director and CEO Janet Cading states: “(W)ith natural disasters frequently occurring around the world, Pompeii … emphasizes history’s relevance to our lives today.”

Despite today’s advanced technology, one has to wonder: are we better prepared to deal with natural disasters than the people of Pompeii were? And in fact, was this tragedy a natural disaster or punishment from the gods, as was so often believed in the ancient world?

Perhaps this is still beyond understanding, but one fact is certain: when the disaster struck, the people of Pompeii were living their lives as casually as we do today.

“Pompeii: In the Shadow of the Volcano” features around 200 objects, many of which are travelling outside Italy for the first time. The exhibit will be on display at the ROM until Jan. 3, 2016, after which it will open at Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts on Feb. 7, 2016. For more information visit: http://www.rom.on.ca/en